A Future Neither Bright Nor Brainy

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In his commentary on the implications of technological change for the future workforce, Marc S. Tucker calls our attention to several studies that replace the now-familiar vision of a "knowledge-based" information society with stark predictions of an economic wasteland for the majority of future workers (Education Week, Dec. 14, 1983). Despite the gloom of this scenario, it is refreshing to see that Mr. Tucker--and others, including Henry Levin of Stanford University's Institute for Research on Educational Finance and Governance--are willing to consider the real implications of a high-technology economy.

We have become a nation consumed with our educational inadequacies and firm in our resolve to raise our educational standards to a level we assume will be required by the intellectual demands of a technological age. We are committed to the vision of a future nation of "knowledge workers" who are prepared to compete in an age when all work will be mind work and all workers will be problem-solvers. This has created a new golden era of education reform that promises to carry us and our nation into the Computer Age.

In such a context, a little reality comes as a breath of fresh air. Certainly, it is better for educators to take a hard look at the real implications of high technology than to bury our heads in the sand (read: silicon). Therefore, I applaud Mr. Tucker's efforts to encourage educators, and everyone else, to look at a more accurate picture of the future, a future neither bright nor brainy, one in which a small educated elite will run the show and the rest of us lucky enough to have jobs will need little education or training to perform our de-skilled, underpaid, unprotected, service-oriented functions--a future, in other words, in which "future workers" bear some resemblance to workers of today and are not some conveniently concocted new species.

It is important to begin to examine the implications for education of a "wasteland" economy, and to avoid the tendency to soften the picture or to fabricate new mythologies in order to hold on to cherished assumptions and convictions. Unfortunately, even Mr. Tucker and Mr. Levin avoid confronting the very reality they encourage the rest of us to see. Because of their commitment to traditional education and to prevailing economic assumptions, they are forced to concoct a specious justification for education that I call the "migrant labor theory of educational justification." This unexamined theory, which has become standard fare lately, implies that the purpose of education is to enable people to continually adapt to an ever-changing labor market. I want to examine the theory and caution against its use.

Mr. Tucker tells us that "if you accept these premises [of the new studies], the case for better education for all cannot be argued on economic grounds." He refuses, therefore, to accept this vision of economic decline and proceeds to set up an alternative vision no less fanciful than that of other futurists. The "extraordinary significance" that Mr. Tucker initially attributes to the new studies seems in the end to be simply their capacity to alarm us. If Mr. Tucker's fantastic vision of "an economy based on high levels of expertise" and state-of-the-art materials and technologies is not simply another dose of nationalism wedded to high-tech futurism, I must have missed something. Or perhaps I simply have a difficult time imagining 100 million workers on the "leading edge" of anything. Mr. Tucker's vision is unfortunate, but it is also instructive. The device he uses to justify the need for education in his "economy of experts" is much the same as the one Mr. Levin uses in his second of three "educational implications of high technology." Both writers speak of the need for education that will "ready future workers to move from challenge to challenge," that will provide them with "an ability to adapt to a changing work environment." This is the migrant theory.

But is adaptability really the fundamental issue here? According to a New York Times article by Gene Maeroff, a staff reporter, "most jobs in the next decade will require very little in the way of skill development or training," and "more than 60,000 jobs that can be performed with little or no prior training are available in New York City each year." Facts like these, of course, contradict the common notion that unskilled jobs are disappearing and that getting skills is becoming the only way to get jobs. The truth is that skills have become new credentials by which candidates are selected for still-plentiful unskilled jobs (though they may be performed on computer screens).

"The real problem," concludes Bob Kuttner in an article on "The Declining Middle" in the July 1983 issue of The Atlantic Monthly, is "the supply of good jobs, rather than the supply of good workers. An emphasis on education and training will make the workforce even more frustrated than it is now."

True as this may be, it is nonetheless a bitter pill for an educator to swallow. Some educators--Mr. Tucker and Mr. Levin in particular--have instead found another reason to educate everyone. Focusing on the familiar assumption that rapid technological changes during a worker's lifetime will force each worker to shift to several types of jobs during his or her years of employment, these educators argue that tomorrow's average worker will have to be able to adapt and learn far more readily than today's counterpart. This adaptability itself, this capacity for migration, thus becomes the goal of traditional education and serves as a new justification for education in a world in which no single job requires much education at all.

What sort of education is believed necessary for such adaptability? Mr. Tucker tells us future workers must be educated broadly enough to move from challenge to challenge--"We need a labor force that is creative, knowledgeable, and flexible." We may argue that moving from one "de-skilled" service job to another hardly means going from "challenge to challenge." Still, argues Mr. Levin in a paper on "The Educational Implications of High Technology," "adaptation requires a sufficient store of information about culture, language, society, and technology, as well as the ability to apply that information and acquire new knowledge."

This is, unfortunately, all that either educator says about "education for adaptability," and it is hardly sufficient or convincing. I keep imagining myself explaining to a class of reluctant learners, who already see little if any relevance to jobs in what they are taught, that they are really being taught how to move successfully from job to job. They would be justified in suspecting some sleight-of-hand on my part. The argument that a solid general education is necessary for successful adaptation in a de-skilled job market is clearly implausible.

There are too many luckless laborers already, forced to migrate from job to job, whose success or failure hardly depends on a "store" of information about culture, language, and technology. Rather, the availability of jobs for which these workers have specific experience or credentials is the key. Ask anyone looking for a job these days if this is true.

It would not be surprising to find employers taking an interest in the "education for adaptability" argument, however. Mr. Maeroff's article notes that "the barriers to employment for most students [and future workers] are not that they lack particular skills, but that they do not understand what is expected of them on the job." Socializing skills acquired in the long process of general education are what typically interest employers, and I wonder whether the "education for adaptability" argument is not primarily a vehicle for justifying traditional, loosely conceived comprehensive education, while fostering an acquiescence in a new set of job realities.

Until these questions are examined, this "adaptability" argument will remain a lame, last-ditch effort to justify traditional educational practice in a world that may no longer need it.

It is important to realize that we are at a moment in history when, for more people than ever before, the belief that education leads to jobs and economic prosperity is being weakened (although the hold of this idea on our collective consciousness is still strong). Perhaps it is time to let go of the old patterns of "education justification," of which the simplistic "migrant theory" is but the last in a long line.

But it is time to realize that an education system whose underlying rationale is to keep this country internationally competitive--such as in Mr. Tucker's version--ignores these facts about large American companies, especially high-technology companies: They are decreasingly labor-intensive; they are increasingly exporting their labor and lowering the level of skills they need; they are moving away from domestic production; and they are automating in order to permanently reduce their labor needs. In other words, the wealth and competitiveness of American companies are no longer reflected in the wealth of the nation, and an education system with the object of producing skilled workers for these companies really does nothing to enhance the number or quality of American jobs available to those workers. That is the true problem.

It is time to realize that educating people primarily to enable them to cope, to survive, to increase their chances within a deteriorating job market--however important--still does not address the central issue, nor is this a particularly noble aim for education. It is instructive that neither Mr. Tucker nor Mr. Levin is concerned with educating people to understand why the skills required in work are deteriorating, why the middle class is "disappearing," why smokestack industries are in decline, and why technological change must result in rapid job transformation. It is to their credit that they acknowledge these trends at all, given the exuberant "futurism" on all sides, and it is to Mr. Tucker's credit that he refuses to accept workers' dismal prospects passively.

Neither writer, however, sees education as a means of understanding our situation in order to improve it. While Mr. Tucker shares the popular though mistaken view that education is the number one ingredient of a solution to the nation's problems of productivity and competition, neither Mr. Levin nor Mr. Tucker explore the possibility that education designed to help people understand the present might be the number one way to change the future.

In a world in which the frantic, competitive, defensive demand for schooling as the only means of getting a job or getting ahead is beginning to make less sense, educators are finally free to reconsider the more fundamental values of a genuine education. If we can manage to forget about the pseudomeritocratic arguments for education, we might just begin to discover its potential and its justification. Such justification, often seen "merely" as "education for its own sake," might not attract lucrative investment or perpetuate the educational apparatus as we now know it, but it can still be the starting point for genuine educators.

Ironically, the structural deterioration of American labor can be the golden opportunity for educators to see just what their enterprise, stripped of a century of false trappings, is all about. As long as we refuse to attribute these changes to "technological progress," or to inevitable changes in the international marketplace, or to some other predetermined forces beyond our control, we might begin to understand that we can alter the course of our own future by understanding how we got here.

The single fact that has always disturbed me most about education in this country, especially in my work with "disadvantaged" youths and adults, has been this contradiction: Education by its very nature tries to draw out the fullest potential in each person so that each can make his or her fullest contribution to society; yet this society strives to achieve its ends with the least contribution and the least realized potential of its citizens. That is what technology and automation are really all about, and that is why we live in a land of increasing unemployment and underemployment. The genuine education of citizens has in fact become a liability to the engines of production in this society--all rhetoric about the need for "skilled labor" to the contrary.

Educating people to understand this contradiction, to examine its history, to grasp its implications, and to seek ways to transcend it might be a good place to start our fresh new look at the place of education in American society. Let us leave the "future" to others. The justification of education must start now.

Vol. 03, Issue 20, Page 28, 25

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