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Education for the Workplace: Another Form of Elitism

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As faddish as it has become, the notion of "education for the workplace" is neither a new nor, as presently articulated, a particularly democratic idea. When, in 1749, Benjamin Franklin wrote On the Need for an Academy, he envisioned two fundamental goals for Colonial education. He saw schooling as a means to promote social and civic harmony ("That we obtain the Advantages arising from an Increase of Knowledge, and prevent as much as may be the mischievous Consequences that would attend a general Ignorance among us") and secondly as a source to enhance performance in the world of work and through that to benefit society ("Thus instructed, Youth will come out of the School fitted for learning any Business, Calling or Profession ... laying such a foundation of Knowledge and Ability, as, properly improv'd, may qualify them to pass thro' and execute the several Offices of civil Life, with Advantage and Reputation to themselves and Country").

Franklin's motives, for example, to prepare a trained and efficient workforce and a law-abiding citizenry, capture the essence of the utilitarian vision of the purposes of education. And certainly, given the exigencies and conditions of the times, his motives and plans were both appropriate and necessary. But America in 1749 was a highly elitist society and Franklin, while extolling the virtues of teaching English and other practical subjects to the working/merchant class, nevertheless knew full well that the elite members of society would continue to be distinguished by their knowledge of the classical languages ("All intended for the Divinity should be taught the Latin and Greek; for Physick, the Latin, Greek, and French; for Law, the Latin and French"). Thus it was an accepted fact that the leaders of Franklin's day were to receive an education beyond that provided to the common man by the academy. Today's call for "education for the workplace" has a similar elitist ring to it. Such education is often conceived of and described as benefiting business, the economy, the civility of society, and as a way for the masses to become successful members of the workforce.

I recently received a brochure announcing an upcoming conference called "The Education of the New California Workforce." In the brochure a conference presenter representing a corporation is quoted: "Higher education, in partnership with business, can and must take the lead in re-directing the education of the workforce, teaching them to become better citizens, more effective leaders, and world-competitive workers, literate in the basics of spoken, written, and computer communications." The brochure goes on to state: "[This is] a conference dedicated to the role of education in the advancement of workforce excellence and economic development."

More and more this focus on workplace/workforce education seems to be directed at K-14 schooling; the underlying assumption being that when we talk about the "workplace" and the "workforce" what we are really talking about are jobs to be filled by the non-college graduate or the vocationally prepared student. Indeed, one of the conference workshops described in the brochure is "Reforming Teacher Education: How to recruit, prepare, and retain teachers for the education of a competitive workforce." It is apparently schoolteachers, not university professors, who are to deal with the education of the "workforce."

What then will this workforce education look like? Will it be vocational tracks for students deemed (doomed?) to be likely candidates for the workforce? Will it be, as might be inferred from the corporate panelist quoted above, a minimalist education devoted to basic communicative literacy and citizenship training? Will it be a program taught by teachers specially trained to "educate" workforce students?

What happened to the notion of a sound, basic liberal education for all of the children of all of the people? What's wrong with trying to prepare all children for a college education? And why wouldn't such an education be good enough for the "workplace"? Not all students will want to go to college, but who among us is entitled to predetermine that for them? Where is it decreed that our schools must support the agenda of corporate and business leaders by teaching what they deem to be appropriate? What is to be removed from the curriculum to make room for "workforce education"? Why don't schools teach our students and businesses train their workers?

Even the "Welcome From the Conference Host" section of the brochure I received reveals a tinge of concern/guilt regarding this utilitarian melding of the interests of the corporate world with the purposes of education. The host, the chancellor of the California State University System, states, "A sharper commitment by academe to the economic health of California does not mean abandoning our historic liberal-arts mission."

Only time will tell us if he is correct.

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