[The remarks below were delivered on May 1, 20144 to a group of doctoral students in the Educational Leadership
& Innovation program at Arizona State University.]
A couple weeks ago we had a dinner party. My brother, Ed, was there; and Ed’s grandson Jason and Jason’s wife Heather and the new great-grandson, Jackson Paul … we call him JP.
As the evening progressed the conversation turned to education, as it often does. I was beginning to expound my favorite opinions – the K-12 curriculum is completely obsolete; schools are not preparing students for life in the 21st century – when I sensed that I was losing my audience.
But wait; let me back up.
Ed, my brother, will turn 82 in October; he was born in 1932. Our father was born in 1909, and our grandmother in 1888.
My grandmother’s parents were homesteaders in Southwestern Nebraska. They struggled to stay alive on arid land not fit for farming. My grandmother told me stories of lying awake at night as a child fearful that the skirmishes between the Oglala Sioux and the soldiers at Fort Robinson might spill over into their locale. My father worked from age 15 as an apprentice printer and then as a journeyman and proud member of the International Typographical Union. My brother had a long a successful career as a YMCA director – Denver, Oklahoma City – only retiring after 45 years of service. And me? Well the next time I teach a statistics course will be the 51st year that I have taught a class of college students. And what about Jason and Heather? Well, Jason sells computer software services and has no office and is often in the air, and Heather just accepted a promotion to the Boston office of her medical supply company.
The changes in the nature of work between my grandmother’s life and JP’s are nothing short of phenomenal. Their lives span a century-and-a-half and a universe of change. The great inventions that made progress possible in my grandmother’s era were the steel plow and the horse collar. In JP’s life? No list will begin to cover all that has happened.
In my opinion, the nation’s education system is hopelessly out of step with how young people’s lives are evolving, and it always has been. There are reasons for this, good and sufficient reasons about universal education in a democracy; but to explore them will take me far afield of this look at the future.
An an 8th grader in the Lincoln, Nebraska public schools, I was required to take a semester of Metal Shop where we worked hot metal at a forge. At that time – 1953 – there could not have been more than a handful of blacksmiths in the entire state; and yet, such is the conservatism of the school curriculum that we were being trained in junior high to hammer out a pair of horse shoes.
Today’s curriculum strikes me as no less ridiculous. Spelling, arithmetic, handwriting, writing itself, even keyboarding. Has no one over the age of 40 ever held a smartphone?
And so I went on around the dinner table that evening.
In the future, the nature of work will be radically changed. Except for a small percentage of the population who engineer and program computers and robots, there will be no way for the vast majority of the population to contribute to the economy. My father and ITU struck against the arrival of computers in the composing room in 1963; he never worked another day as a printer. Years later when I showed him how my word processor – WordPerfect – could completely change the font and spacing of an entire document with a few key strokes, he was stunned, and perhaps silently reflected on the demise of his once valuable trade. When I started as a professor in 1965, there was one secretary for every four faculty members; now there are none – no secretaries, that is, but plenty of faculty.
If computers and robots will take over the vast bulk of work – as I am convinced they will do – what will happen to the people who have no way of contributing to the world’s wealth by selling their labor? For some, different cultural norms will have to evolve for such things as the length of one’s work-life and even workday. For many, it will simply have to be accepted that they will not “work” in any form like the current definition of the word and that wealth created by the very few will have to be redistributed among the many. (Note 1)
At this point in the evening, a generational divide opened up around the dinner table.
To my brother, this idea of a few workers and many others benefiting from their labor bordered on the repugnant. People without work receiving services and subsidies from a government would have no sense of self-worth; they would be miserable; they would be leeches; we live to work; it is our fate and our destiny: “By the sweat of your brow will you have food to eat until you return to the ground from which you were made.” (Genesis 3:19)
To older generations, the idea of redistribution of wealth is anathema, but ironically, it is precisely those generations who are the biggest beneficiaries of wealth redistribution through Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and virtually zero estate taxes.
But to Heather and Jason – and all the more to JP someday, I predict – people will work in order to live lives of enjoyment and fulfillment, and fulfillment will not always be achieved through work. Work will be a means of acquiring the wherewithal to enjoy life. Jason and Heather had only recently returned from a vacation in Costa Rica. Although they had only been in Denver about four years, they were prepared to pull up stakes and move to Boston for Heather’s advancement in the company. Unlike the careers of their seniors, their careers are not marked by loyalty to a single company. Were they threatened by the idea of redistributing wealth to others less privileged or unluckier than themselves? No, not in the least, and they even said they would be willing to pay higher taxes so that more people could receive health care and adequate housing and nutritious diets. In this respect, Jason and Heather may reflect the values of a whole generation, the generation that Howe and Strauss (Note 2) called the Millennials. Their Millennials show a stronger sense of community and are more civic minded than previous generations, sometimes referred to as Generation X or the Baby Boomer Generation.
I submit to you that what I observed around the dinner table that night was a miniature reflection of a huge generational and cultural divide that is working its way slowly through modern societies the world over. The nature of work is changing rapidly, and culture is changing slowly behind it, and schools as the reproducer of culture change more slowly still.
And where do the schools stand in the midst of all this change? The schools have a miserable record of preparing young people for work. The contemporary curriculum is no more relevant to the shifting nature of modern society than the metal shop class I took in 1953 was relevant to my work-life to come. Most of what is taught in schools today is antiquated and useless. Most mathematics can’t stand on its own two feet in a debate about relevance, Google spells better than I do – and has done so several times as I type this – and the recorded human voice communicates better than writing. And if it were not impossible to keep humans from learning a system of writing, books would have long ago been put out of business by movies and recordings. (Homer – the Greek, not Simpson -- was not a writer, one must recall.)
And please do not tell me that even though you’ll never use geometry that it trains you to think logically. It doesn’t. It just trains you to think about geometry, that’s all. There are millions of people (like Megan Fox) who passed geometry and still believe in Leprechauns, or who (like Fran Dresher) believe that they were once abducted by aliens, or who believe that someday they will ride their horse again in heaven. And there are thousands of scientists who can’t reason their way out of a wet paper bag on issues like abortion, immigration, or affordable health care.
The fact is that all the talk on the part of the business community about wanting graduates who are “career ready” is just so much hokum.
Here’s Alan Golston of the Gates foundation talking about the relationship of the schools to the business community: “Businesses are the primary consumers of the output of our schools, so [school & business] is a natural alliance.” Sure, what company wouldn’t want to have new employees trained at public expense on all the little particular tasks that their employees perform? But why should I pay taxes to have Company X’s employees trained so that Company X’s bottom line can grow and Company X’s CEO can increase his salary even more than 250 times that of his average worker? (And if you object to the sexism of the previous sentence, just check out the number of female CEOs in the Fortune 500 companies. Don’t bother, I’ll do it for you: 24.)
When the business world says they want “career ready” employees, what they really want is employees who show up on time, stay off drugs, don’t steal, and don’t join unions. And what career are these graduates supposed to be ready for when labor economists tell us that the average adult today can look forward to hold 3 or 4 different jobs in their lifetime?
The current curriculum fads are STEM and the Common Core State Standards, which we are learning are neither common nor state generated. Let’s first take STEM: Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math education. Those who wish to interject the Arts and talk about STEAM education have gained no traction in the reform movement.
It is a multi-faceted myth that the U.S. economy is suffering due to a dearth of scientists, engineers and mathematicians. In 2012, the unemployment rate of college educated STEM graduates rose to 5.5%, approximately the same rate as for all college graduates (5.4%). Only about 38% of college graduates whose highest degree is in a STEM field work in STEM jobs. In 2008, there were more than 17 million individuals with a STEM bachelor’s degree or higher, but even by the highest estimates there were fewer than 7 million STEM jobs. With about 10 million STEM graduates currently without STEM jobs, it is unclear how anyone, particularly our President and Secretary of Education, could claim that there is now a shortage of STEM workers. One starts to wonder whether creating a surplus of workers in a field with subsequent holding down of wage increases might not be a motive behind some STEM cheerleading.
On a personal note: Our son-in-law Piet is in charge of a section of the website of a huge corporation whose name is instantly recognizable. He works from home, although his corporation provides office space for tens of thousands of its employees. He supervises two IT web workers in San Paulo and one in Bratislava. Why? Because labor is bought cheaper there than in the U.S. So maybe it’s Brazil and Slovakia that need STEM education.
And what about the Common Core? The Common Core, I regret to report, is little more than a trumped up excuse to funnel billions of dollars to some huge corporations – count among them, Pearson the U.K. based publishing giant. Here’s Bill Gates, the major backer of the Common Core who has spent millions pushing the program speaking to the U.S. Congress in 2009: “When the tests are aligned to the common standards, the curriculum will line up as well – and that will unleash powerful market forces in the service of better teaching. For the first time, there will be a large base of customers eager to buy products that can help every kid learn and every teacher get better.”
The sorry fact is that the K-12 curriculum is rapidly being destroyed by things like the Common Core. Music, physical education, and art are being dumped to make time for more test taking preparation. School officials in Elwood, New York, cancelled a Kindergarten play because it would take time away from getting the little tykes “college and career ready.” The interim principal wrote to the parents: “The reason for eliminating the Kindergarten show is simple. We are responsible for preparing children for college and career with valuable lifelong skills and know that we can best do that by having them become strong readers, writers, coworkers, and problem solvers.” Ironically, in an effort to make the world career ready, teachers’ jobs are being turned into dull mind-numbing jobs.
If the modern K-12 curriculum is nearly useless, and if the Common Core is the answer to the wrong problem, then what should we be teaching our children?
The greatest problem facing the U.S. economy is not that we have too few scientists and engineers, but that we have tens of millions of people who sap hundreds of billions of dollars out of the economy unnecessarily. And I am referring to the cost to the economy of lifestyle choices that lower worker productivity and increase medical costs: namely, obesity, addictions to tobacco, alcohol, and drugs (both legal and illegal), and sedentary lifestyles. The total cost of drug abuse and addiction due to use of tobacco, alcohol and illegal drugs alone is estimated at greater than $500 billion a year.
Throw in another $50 billion annually as the cost of incarcerating the illegal drug addicts and you are starting to account for a non-negligible portion of the nation’s GNP. Let’s look at it a different way: The cost to the U.S. society due to substance abuse and addiction is greater than the combined GNPs of Finland and Norway. And we are not even considering the cost to our economy of sedentary lifestyles leading to heart disease and diabetes, for example.
What is the U.S. education system doing about these problems? Can the school carry out a full-speed campaign to stamp out fast food, Coca Cola, and quasi-professional high school sports that exalt the few and train the rest to be popcorn munching, sedentary ticket-buying spectators? Instead, we sign contracts with the soft drink companies to share some of the profits from the sale of sugary sodas to our students.
I do not for a second underestimate the pressures on school administrators to give into the forces that make money off of children. It takes a special kind of fortitude to resist these temptations and pressures.
Once upon a time there was a thing known as a “liberal education.” It strove to make students aware of the rights and obligations of a citizen in a democracy, to equip them with the experiences and dispositions to enjoy a lifetime filled with healthy relationships and a commitment to things outside their own narrow appetites. A liberal education sought to make children aware of their connection to a larger society, and to assume some responsibility for its well-being. The “liberal” in liberal education meant “free.” A liberal education was to be the education of free men in a society comprising free men and slaves (with women categorized among the latter, presumably). We no longer have a society divided into the free and the slave, because the slave labor increasingly is being taken over by machines. There will come a day when people are no longer defined solely by their job; when the answers to the question “What do you do?” will no longer be “I’m a printer,” or “I’m a pharmacist,” but will be “I play the guitar” or “I’m a gardener” or “I’m a world traveler.” Will we educators of future generations hasten that day? As my colleague Tom Barone says, “Teachers touch eternity.” Will we continue to reach for it?
We return now to the question with which we started. Who owns the future? Let’s hope it’s not the Common Core. But what about Teach For America and the Koch brothers? Well, we are out of time, and those are topics for another day.
- Unemployment in Spain exceeds 50% for persons under age 25; the causes are both political and structural; but even Jeremiads like this one from the BBC can not disguise the fact that young people are finding ways of adjusting to what may be more than a mere evanescent moment in economic history: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-27212890
- Howe, Neil; Strauss, William (2000). Millennials Rising: The Next Great Generation. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group.
Gene V Glass
Arizona State University
University of Colorado Boulder
The opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not represent the official position of NEPC, Arizona State University, nor the University of