Educating to Fail
Educating to Fail
By Richard Worzel
Our education is failing today’s children in a big way. Yet, it’s not only our education system; it’s also our governments, our economy, and our national economic policy. These failings have potentially dire consequences, both for our children and for our country. Kids are leaving school with the degrees and qualifications we pushed them to get, but many of them are finding no work within their fields, and many others are substantially underemployed, especially in part-time and contract work.
But how is that a fault of the education system? Well, it’s a shared failing, as I’ve said, but it traces back to a long-standing debate over the purpose of education: Is education supposed to create a well-rounded person, aware of the world and her place in it? Or is education supposed to prepare a student for a future occupation through skills training? This is one of those debates that appears to flutter around education, but the answer is both. While I think you could argue that we are, more or less, producing well-rounded individuals, we are clearly not equipping students to make a living.
Skills to make a living are the responsibility of the education system, in my opinion. For example, a friend of mine is an artist. She graduated from an Ivy League university with a B.A. in fine arts. During her last year, one of her art professors told his class that 10 years after their graduation, they’d be lucky if one out of 10 of them was still a full-time artist. My friend was furious. She believed, and rightly in my view, that the university had an obligation not only to teach them the techniques of art, but also the means of practicing it. Otherwise, the techniques were useless.
Sure enough, shortly after she graduated she found that she couldn’t make a living as an artist, and started working for a software consulting company in marketing. Years later, she started an MBA in technology and while writing her thesis, something suddenly dawned on her — she now knew how to market things, including her own art. With that realization, she started painting on commission and gradually building a market and a following using her real world marketing skills. Ironically, she says that her alma mater now teaches marketing to art students with the precise intention of helping them make a living out of art.
We must give students the skills they need to actually succeed. If we require students to attend more than 12 years of school whether they want to or not (and for much of those 12 years, it’s “not”), then we have an obligation to make sure that the education we are force-feeding them is worth something.
This is not just a matter of schools, hence my comments about the shared failings of our economy, our governments, and national economic policy. So why are students having such a hard time finding meaningful work? After all, when the boomers finished their formal education, they had people lining up to hire them, and with decent qualifications, there were some pretty juicy jobs. What’s changed since then?
The simple answer is: the world has changed in two very important ways. First, we now have a global economy with a global labour force, which means increased competition for workers as well. Today someone working on a car assembly line is competing with workers around the world, from Germany and Japan to China, India, Vietnam, and elsewhere.
Secondly, work has changed through automation. In response to greater competition from foreign companies that have lower labour costs, domestic industries responded by introducing as much automation as possible in order to minimize their own labour costs. But this eliminates jobs, because increased productivity means you can produce the same number of goods with fewer people.
The combination of these two forces – foreign competition and domestic automation – has been whittling away at the potential jobs available to emerging graduates here at every level.
Researchers and graduates students have also had an especially hard time getting funding for their research. Part of the reason is because the costs of living in a “rich” country like Canada are so much higher than in a developing country like China or India, so it simply costs more to do research here.
Is there any answer to these problems of employment? What should we be doing differently?
I believe there is an answer; it arises from the fact that the world has changed, but our education system fundamentally has not. True, there are computers in classrooms today, and true we are in the process of breaking the sit-still-and-listen-while-I-lecture model of education, but we are still doing the same thing we did in the 19th century: teaching facts. Yet in today’s world, facts are cheap, you can look them up online, and therefore have very little value to a student who knows how to research.
I think the answer lies in a reply to a 1990s business cliché: in order to survive, businesses needed to “emigrate, automate, or evaporate.” In other words, manufacturers either had to move their production offshore to lower-wage countries, automate to keep labour costs down to remain competitive, or go out of business.
But I believe there is a fourth alternative: “Emigrate, automate, innovate, or evaporate.” The reply to greater foreign competition and domestic automation is workers who are creative, innovative, and entrepreneurial. And that’s what our education system should be aiming for. If we achieve anything less, we are setting our children up for failure. We have no choice. Our education system and our economy must move towards teaching individual creativity. Anything less will lead to disaster.
Richard Worzel is Canada’s leading futurist, and speaks to more than 20,000 business people a year. He offers his time free of charge to speak to high school students, as his schedule allows. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.