Saturday, December 27, 2014

Skills, De-skilling, and the Happy Workers Problem.

Audrey Watters year-end reviews on the state of ed-tech are required reading.  But the one on skills really struck a chord with me.  Essentially, Watters points out three interconnected problems.

1.  More students are graduating from college with more debt.

2.  Unemployment for recent college grads continues to be high.  People blame "a skills gap."

3.  There is a huge pressure on colleges and high schools to teach "job-skills" and ditch the "not-useful stuff".  See Florida.

What we have here is a variation on what I call "the happy workers problem."  The happy workers problem is essentially a way of framing the debate around education.  According to the logic of happy workers proponents,  the point of education is to produce highly skilled workers that will be happy in their jobs.  Highly skilled, happy workers will lead, according to this logic, to a prosperous economy, a strong nation, national greatness etc. etc.. 

What happy workers proponents misunderstand is well, pretty much everything.  People aren't necessarily happy because they are well-paid, skills taught for today's job market may be useless tomorrow, schools can't and shouldn't replace job training programs, and advocates of getting schools to do the work of job training are generally trying to drive down wages in their employment sectors.

What education should do (and generally does well) is help create what David Hollinger called in a different context, a  "wider circle of 'we'".   School's main job is to expose students to a world beyond their parochial experience and engage as human beings with the wider world of both imagination and reality.  Real science, the humanities, and math form the core of this curriculum because they expand our ways of knowing the world around us and teach us disparate but related modes of thinking and of asking and answering questions about the nature of the world around us.  These are precisely the questions that happy workers advocates don't want their workers asking.  A worker who has learned about labor unions might want to organize her workplace.  A worker well-versed in math (and thus logic) might question why workers instead of executives or common shareholders are getting such a big share of corporate profits (despite the fact that CEO performance does little to increase profits).  And on and on. 

It's not really a conscious plotting, mind you, it's just that happy workers advocates don't see the point in what they consider useless knowledge.  And useful knowledge is only that knowledge that is measured by economic productivity.  Anything that cannot be monetized has no value.  It's a short-sighted ethic, but as we've seen in Ferguson, in civil forfeiture cases, and the housing crisis, we're heading towards a future where anything can be monetized.   And those monetizations of traffic violations, of the war on drugs, of risky housing policy, all came from good intentioned but short-sighted-policy efforts.  They were supposed to make us happier. 

And yet, we all are so unhappy. 

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