Education for the Future is Not “Practical”

The End of EducationSad to say, some of America’s most important political leaders believe that one who learns how to be useful economically will have learned how to be an educated person. A headline, early in 1994, announced: Clinton Tells Educators Youths Are Not Getting Practical Skills for Jobs.The story quotes the President as saying, “In the nineteenth century, at most, young Americans needed a high school education to make their way… It was good enough if they could read well and understand basic numbers. In the twenty-first century, our people will have to keep learning all their lives.” Of course, in the nineteenth century it was also desirable for people to continue learning all their lives. In fact, there was far more technological change in the nineteenth century than is likely to occur in the twenty-first. The nineteenth century gave us telegraphy, photography, the rotary press, the telephone, the typewriter, the phonograph, the transatlantic cable, the electric light, movies, the locomotive, rockets, the steamboat, the X-ray, the revolver, the computer, and the stethoscope, not to mention canned food, the penny press, the modern magazine, the advertising agency, the modern bureaucracy, and, for God’s sake, even the safety pin. But let us suppose the President did not learn about this in Arkansas schools and was advancing the standard-brand argument that with continuing, rapid technological change the job market will require people who are adaptable to change, who can learn new concepts easily, and who can discard unusable assumptions without trauma. This is a very difficult task for the schools, and one that John Dewey held to be of the utmost importance. The President’s solution is to provide the young with more practical vocational skills, which appears to be, not surprisingly, the same solution offered to California educators by Labor Secretary Robert Reich and Education Secretary Richard Riley. Of course, this is exactly the wrong solution, since the making of adaptable, curious, open, questioning people has nothing to do with vocational training and everything to do with humanistic and scientific studies. The President’s speech and the advice of his colleagues demonstrate that they themselves have difficulty discarding outmoded assumptions, including their belief that if something is not working — for example, training people for jobs — then what is needed is more of it.

—Neil Postman
The End of Education

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