Buzzwords: Education and readiness for what?

Each generation is inclined to educate its young so as to get along in the present world instead of with a view to the proper end of education: the promotion of the best possible realization of humanity as humanity. Parents educate their children so that they may get on; princes educate their subjects as instruments of their own purposes…[Kant writes] “Rulers are simply interested in such training as will make their subjects better tools for their own intentions.”  From John Dewey’s  Democracy and Education, Ch. 7

Today’s topic: the “employability narrative.” Two recent posts by favorite bloggers of mine — Larry Cuban and Audrey Watters — happened to take differing but complementary slants on this question, and mostly my goal here is to get you to go read those people.

Cuban writes (here) about “flawed assumptions” that have driven main-stream school reform since at least A Nation At Risk (1983), assumptions, viz.,

that U.S. students don’t measure up to international students; low test scores are signs that U.S. students are unable to enter successfully the new information-driven workplace….The new economy requires different and far more complex skills than the industrial-based one since the late-19th century. Students need to learn more, faster, and better. And graduates equipped with those skills–schools growing “human capital” is the jargon –will get high-paying jobs benefiting themselves and the economy will be stronger in the global marketplace benefiting society.

The late, lamented Gerry Bracey was a master at showing how the numbers that were used to bolster these and other elements of mainstream reform were cherry-picked and casuistic, usually biased towards market-based remedies.  Cuban uses the testimony of economists to counter the economist-driven view of education, and makes the simple point that most of the “human capital” models of the cause-and-effect relationship of education reform (including heavy investments in technology, accountability mania, etc.) just have not produced the predicted results.

Meanwhile, Audrey Watters at has an extensive essay on the “employability narrative” in her roundup of top ed-tech trends for 2015.  Watters wrote cogently in her 2014 roundup about “school as skills,” and that post remains very well worth reading.  Her 2015 post ranges over job-training, the so-called skills gap, the “Everyone should code” movement, and issues of diversity and “the meritocracy lie.”   The fundamental question is (surprise!), what is the point of education?   So much of the turmoil, damage, and insufficiently understood experimentation of the modern era has accepted almost without question

the powerful narrative that the primary purpose of education – at both the K–12 and university levels – is to prepare students for the workforce.

One result of this has been to home in more and more on skills and generic “readiness” as estimated by some standardized test.  This makes education more like an economic transaction, with discrete quantities being produced and measured, and inputs of various kinds being designed as commercial products (nostrums, sometimes) to be deployed to get the right outcomes.  Of course there are millions of well-intentioned people, most of them more knowledgeable than I, who see this as a powerful way to proceed, but it does sound rather like education as an engineering challenge and industrial process.  This makes it more tractable for accountability systems, and also for entrepreneurs and capitalists of many kinds.  Somehow, though, no matter how few excuses we accept, how much we cut the budgets, how high we set our standards, the “achievement gap” is not closed, all children are not proficient at specified points in time, and SES variables are the best predictors of success by the measures deemed most appropriate.

It’s the 100th anniversary of the publication of Dewey’s Democracy and Education.  The book is not the “last word” on education, but it is so wise and so radical that every re-reading is an education in democracy, education, and humane thought.  To our point, recall how Dewey discusses the flaws of “education as preparation” which, by the way, always entails (100 years ago it was evident and evidently flawed) ill-conceived standardizations of many kinds:

A third undesirable result is the substitution of a conventional average standard of expectation and requirement for a standard which concerns the specific powers of the individual under instruction. For a severe and definite judgment based upon the strong and weak points of the individual is substituted a vague and wavering opinion concerning what youth may be expected, upon the average, to become in some more or less remote future; say, at the end of the year, when promotions are to take place, or by the time they are ready to go to college or to enter upon what, in contrast with the probationary stage, is regarded as the serious business of life….

You’d think that education, as the quintessential learning profession, would have noticed the crazy repetitive waves of trial and error over the past century or so — but then education “reform”  has rarely been driven by educators who have had the time and resources to learn from history.

the principle of preparation makes necessary recourse on a large scale to the use of adventitious motives of pleasure and pain…Everybody knows how largely systems of punishment have had to be resorted to by educational systems which neglect present possibilities in behalf of preparation for a future. Then, in disgust with the harshness and impotency of this method, the pendulum swings to the opposite extreme, and the dose of information required against some later day is sugar-coated, so that pupils may be fooled into taking something which they do not care for.

Stepping back: As I was working on this post, I asked myself, ‘Why do I find it so urgent to see, name, and question foundational assumptions underlying the rhetoric and design of educational policy? I mean, aside from some personality quirk, or the natural desire not to be imposed upon, do I think there’s some consequence for action?’ Dissatisfaction or disequilibrium, Dewey would argue, is the root of inquiry — that is, it can be, if you let the disquiet generate questions and strategies for pursuing them productively.

If I have done this to the point that some new clarity is reached, I am to that extent less alienated from my world — but then I also have grown (maybe a very little bit), have a greater capacity to use that understanding. How? Well, one can [1] conscientiously refuse to cooperate or reproduce misguided policy or rhetoric; or [2] take part in efforts to undo or oppose bad policy and practice; or [3] find ways to work around (or replace or undermine) a bad situation with better policy, practice, or rhetoric; or, I guess, [4]]create discomfort in others, so they can undertake their own inquiries. Well, here’s hoping!

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