Learning Less for More

Bill Gates recounts the gist of his and Melinda Gates’ meeting with Warren Buffet and Susie Buffet at the NBC Education Nation Summit 2011 thus:

There’s a lot of uncertainty today about our nation’s economy, but there is no uncertainty that a high-quality education is key to economic prosperity for all of our people — and for us as a nation. […] the need for highly-skilled workers is growing. By 2018, an estimated 63 percent of all new U.S. jobs will require workers with an education beyond high school.

And so, he says, public education should be at the top of the nation’s domestic policy agenda. There should be support systems for students who will, in the very near future, be compelled to pursue post-secondary education just to survive. As matters now stand, people who want a college education have to embrace debt like a dear friend, standing faithfully  by them till nearly middle-age. As one of my former cohorts put it, “I have to mortgage my future just to have it”.

Personally and organisationally, I agree with Gates. I believe, as he does, that the road to a more prosperous collective future goes through our schools, making a fourteen-year stop on the way. However, I am suspicious of the kind of glib stats he quotes, and I’m especially suspicious about the very construction of these employment requirements.

As was recently discussed in this comment thread at Z’s blog and on Clarissa’s post on student writing, the American public school system’s requirement of its students have been steadily dropping, pushing colleges to provide skills current faculty leart at middle school. In this context of diminishing expectations and smaller skill-sets from the same level of education, what precisely is meant when one says 63 per cent of new U.S. jobs will require ‘an education beyond high school’? (Also, as a matter of interest, I would have liked to see a citation for that projection).

If one acknowledges that the American public school system is on a steady slide downwards in terms of average quality of education, and also accepts the projection that the majority of future American jobs will require post-seconday degrees, then it is tempting, I think, to conclude that the primary reason for inflating entry-level qualifications is to ensure a certain (relatively) stagnant level of academic achievement amongst employees, while ensuring — by inaction, if by nothing else — that they have to stay longer at academic institutions to acquire it. If one wants to follow the sinister route of paranoia from here onwards, one might imagine a nexus between the Ministry of Education, faceless industry heads, and bankers-in-chief, plotting together to raise generations of docile industry-fodder, on the mixed feed of blinkered education and unrepayable debts.

Even without descending into James Bond plots, the question remains. If standards are slipping — and this certainly has been my teaching experience — then what will be the base standard for measuring adequate height in higher education? One might suggest that standards are only slipping vis a vis traditional skills that have lost their former value. Good writing, for example, or crisp speech, or the ability to do sums in one’s head. I am perfectly prepared to consider this. However, if dead-weight pruning is what the current poor performance is about, I would certainly like to know what vital new skills relevant to the contemporary marketplace are being taught instead, and how equitable access to them is.

I am all for education, and a brief history of my life is proof enough that I am especially all for higher and specialised education. However, decontextualised pushing of higher ed, and creating a purely paperwork-based demand for it amongst employers might very well take the U.S. to where urban India is now: an incomprehensible place were private organisations feel free to demand a Masters’ degree from prospective receptionists, and are inundated with applications (and then, of course, they ‘learn on the job’). Making college and universitiy degrees effectively mandatory will not automatically improve the quality of education. In fact, it just might do the reverse, by letting degree-manufatcuring take over delivery of higher education. If we must reform our educational systems — across the globe, not just in the U.S — we will have to stop emphasising the structural market-requirement aspect of it, and focus on actual content at every step, and their delivery models.

After all, if future employers are predicted to feel a gnawing need for ‘better’ educated employees, then surely the content of their degree-courses, and not merely the dearly-bought stamp of it, is what employers will benefit from?



  1. Enjoyed the well argued piece but by nature am most interested in the conspiracy theory. Mortgaging futures, unrepayable loans, captive HR pool. . .

    • Yes. It’s a winning formula media-wise. Those films (and books, and internet forums) just never fail, do they? I am inclined to believe quite large chunks of specific conspiracy theories as probable — those relating to pharmaceutical testing, multinational food tech companies and government complicity in dubious banking, for example, but the usual conspiracy theorist is usually a rather alarming character, never content merely with the horros that are probable.


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