What If Education Broke Out All Over?

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All children can learn.'' This is education's mantra. No matter that it is meaningless. It is still the educator's first article of faith, at least to judge by how often it is said. Not only do we claim that all children can learn, we currently argue that they should, they must. Their economic well-being and that of the nation depends on it. The New York Times, denying that the 1993 Adult Literacy Survey was a cause for alarm, put it this way:

What has changed--and it's a recent change--are our expectations. Only in the last 20-odd years, for instance, have colleges and universities become truly serious about increasing the diversity of their student bodies. Only in that period have we begun to expect anything like truly equal opportunity at success for all Americans. As a nation, we are still shedding the durable assumption that a literate elite would make the decisions for a less educated society. The kind of egalitarianism that demands truly equal opportunity is still in its infancy....

Thus, "all children can learn'' is transformed into an egalitarian opportunity and, hence, all children will learn. But what would happen if all children did learn? What would happen if, as Phillip Schlechty, the director of the Center for Leadership and School Reform in Louisville, Ky., once lightheartedly put it, education "broke out all over?''

Society would, quite literally, fall apart. I do not know if education so refines the senses or simply makes people allergic to sweat, but educated people simply refuse to scour urinals, pick up garbage, unclog sewers or carry out any number of other unpleasant tasks. Wasn't that, after all, the point of getting an education? In this country, waiting tables is an honorable profession only while attending school, unlike in Europe where it may be a career. The next time you attend any conference cast your gaze on the large cadre of undereducated waiters, maids, janitors, and other staffers without whose attention and ministrations all the fine-sounding papers and speeches would not be deliverable.

I mention these problems with getting the educateds' hands dirty because, as we fret about the Great S.A.T. Race and the International Test-Score Olympics, we have lost sight of another problem: We already have too many educated people. It is a problem exacerbated by an economic recovery unlike any other seen previously: It has not produced any good jobs nor is it likely to.

In 1992, I calculated for Phi Delta Kappan that 26 percent of college students worked in jobs that required no college. Nine months later in Education Week, the former American Enterprise Institute official Tait Trussell put the figure at 30 percent. The educational demographer Harold Hodgkinson once told me he visited a community college where 35 percent of the students already had a bachelor's degree. Although the service-sector staff is generally undereducated, a recent issue of Time referred to a new phenomenon: B.A. bellboys. The Washington Post has spoken of college graduates getting "McJobs'': "The lucky ones are those who have landed office jobs filing, photocopying, answering phones; those less fortunate (or less well connected), peddle clothes at The Gap or pull espresso at cafes.''

If this were not bad enough, we have been getting, and swallowing, advice from such persons as Lester Thurow, Robert Reich, and Marc Tucker that are making matters worse. According to these workforce gurus, we can no longer afford our Taylorized assembly lines where workers do simple, repetitive tasks all day. We have to make work smart, let even the lowest-ranking workers make decisions. Look to the Europeans, they have said. The Europeans have moved farther along in this process than we have. Said Ray Marshall and Marc Tucker in their 1992 book, Thinking for a Living: "It turns out that a choice for diversified quality production [the European model] is a choice for a companion set of social goals: high wages, a low wage spread, worker participation, and full employment.'' Mr. Marshall and Mr. Tucker called Japan and Germany the "economic juggernauts'' and "the twin colossi of the world economy.'' "Workers of the World, Get Smart,'' was the perky, glib title of a New York Times Op-Ed piece by Mr. Reich. But in the text, even Mr. Reich, now the U.S. Secretary of Labor, had to back off and admit that "no country has yet found the formula'' to produce more jobs and good jobs.

And when people actually looked to Europe they saw a continent in economic shambles. They saw unemployment rates around 12 percent and rising. To get more people into the workforce, workweek-cutting proposals are being floated in Germany, while job-sharing proposals have surfaced in France. Only a year after Mr. Tucker and Mr. Marshall's book, neither Germany nor Japan had the aura of a colossus. Indeed, the Jan. 5, 1994, edition of National Public Radio's "All Things Considered'' reported ominously that unemployment rates in Germany were approaching those of the Weimar Republic just prior to the rise of Hitler.

A prophetic, if accidental, graphic about the consequences of making work smart occurs on page 34 of Mr. Tucker's America's Choice: High Skills Or Low Wages! It depicts the "old organization of work'' as six front-line workers backed up by 18 support-staff members. The "new organization of work,'' designed to push complexity and decisionmaking as far down the hierarchy as possible, shows eight front-line workers backed up by six support staff. No one apparently noticed that in the new organization of work, 40 percent of the workers had disappeared.

The graphic represents reality. Everywhere one reads about companies "downsizing'' or "re-engineering'' in order to get or stay lean-and-mean and competitive (not one article has listed the schools as part of the problem). Said one former executive in The New York Times: "It's very scary. American companies are really learning to do it smarter, and that means with fewer people.''

As people looked back on 1993, however, many argued that American companies were not learning to do it smarter. An American Management Association study found that only 45 percent of leaner-meaner companies generated higher profits, that two-thirds of companies that downsized one year did it again the next year because the process set off a downward spiral of reduced sales and profits. Even for those companies that increased profits, "very little so far has found its way to workers in the form of more jobs or higher wages.'' Downsizing is cutting muscle as well as fat.

Indeed, the American worker has become his own worst enemy: A graph in the Sept. 29, 1993, Washington Post shows the number of manufacturing jobs declining by three million since 1979. On the same graph a soaring line crosses the downward-spiraling jobs curve: productivity. The rise is almost annual and the size of recent gains has surprised everyone. Gains like those in the last two years have not been seen since the 1960's. (Contrary to popular opinion, worker productivity never declined. The label above a curve in the Hudson Institute's Workforce 2000 does say that "productivity has declined substantially since 1965,'' but a close inspection of the curve reveals that the decline is in productivity improvement: Until recently we were getting better more slowly, but in no year has productivity itself declined.)

The productivity of the American worker is the highest in the world and climbing. Comparing the unit labor cost of manufacturing in this country to that of 12 other nations, the so-called G-7 nations, plus Sweden, Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands, Korea, and Taiwan, one finds that U.S. costs are barely 80 percent of those nations'.

It is not just downsizing that is costing jobs. We got over our fears about automation in the 1960's. Now we ought to get anxious again. In last September's issue of Harper's, Richard J. Barnet of the Institute for Policy Studies framed the predicament well. "The problem is starkly simple,'' he wrote, "an astonishingly large and increasing number of human beings are not needed or wanted to make the goods or to provide the services that the paying customers of the world can afford.'' Mr. Barnet argues that automation will create some jobs, but cost more: "I have visited a variety of highly automated factories in the United States and Europe, including automobile, electronics, and printing plants. The scarcity of human beings in these places is spooky.''

Jobs are being created. They just don't pay anything, as witness the B.A.-bellboy phenomenon. In the last year, manufacturing shed 255,000 positions while the restaurant industry alone added 294,000. While there has been a hue and cry about the fastest-growing jobs requiring more education, those jobs account for only a tiny proportion, 4 percent by one estimate, of all jobs. As one minimum-wage B.A. put it in The Washington Post, "We are getting jobs that chimps could do.'' Jobs come without pension or medical-care benefits and impermanent workers have become ubiquitous as a cost-cutting device. A New Yorker cartoon captured the phenomenon well: A man stands on the proscenium of a stage and tells the audience, "Tonight, the role of Aida will be sung by a temp.''

With 86 percent of our students graduating from high school or obtaining a General Educational Development diploma and 60 percent of those going on to college, the discrepancy between the educational level jobs require and the educational level people bring to them will only increase. Even America's Choice found that the difference in education requirements between current jobs and the new jobs to be created differed by only eight months. Other estimates put the difference closer to four months. It matters not which figure is right: Even the higher number can be met simply by the differential educational attainments of those retiring from the workforce and those entering it. Barely 50 percent of people retiring from the workforce in 1994 at the age of 65 (assuming their pensions haven't disappeared) graduated from high school.

There are other reasons for becoming educated, of course. For many, learning can be fun in itself. Educated people live longer, richer lives and may even enjoy life more. These nonutilitarian outcomes of education have virtually disappeared from discourse about education in recent years. In the last few years, discussions of education and education reform have been marked by a dreary instrumentality about jobs. The dread vision of "competition in the global economy'' has replaced the terror of the Red Menace as a scare tactic to keep Americans in line.

In utopian visions, such as B.F. Skinner's Walden Two, people who did the scut work got more positive reinforcements. In reality, it has never happened that way. When other countries have overeducated their citizens beyond the limits of the marketplace, the solution has not been to rearrange the distribution of rewards, but to import workers from underdeveloped nations. America's immigrant population has been soaring in recent years so we won't face an immediate crisis, but unless we can insure a steady stream of illiterate newcomers, we eventually will face a crunch, a crunch brought on by our very success.

All this is not to say that education has become less important. Quite the reverse. Two graphs carried in this publication have illustrated the paradoxical trends that are transpiring. One repeated what has been said earlier: Over the last 15 years, the probability of landing in a poor-paying job has increased for all levels of education, albeit more steeply for high school dropouts than for those with some college. The other graph showed the wage differentials among those with differing educational attainments. As people move from dropout to diploma to baccalaureate to doctoral degree, their salary doubles with each step. As more and more people become well educated, employers will have a better and better, deeper and deeper pool of potential applicants to pick from--and will need to pick fewer and fewer for an ever dwindling number of good jobs. Not a bad deal for the businessman.

In any case, it looks to me like educational attainments and job requirements are on a collision course. Unless, of course, we develop technologies that eliminate the use of humans in the dirty work. Then we'll have to revisit the queasy social problems discussed in places like Kurt Vonnegut's God Bless You Mr. Rosewater. Says a character in that novel, "The problem is this: How to love people who have no use.'' For the time being, though, the problem is that if we reached our announced goals, a lot of well-educated, highly skilled people are going to be shooting craps on the porch stoop. This doesn't mean we shouldn't try, especially given the inequality of opportunity currently. It does mean we ought to look honestly at the problem. And it is more than just a problem of equal opportunity. Said Richard Barnet, "In the end, the job crisis raises the most fundamental question of human existence: What are we doing here?'' Is anyone looking into the problem? I haven't seen anyone even take a peek.

Vol. 13, Issue 27, Pages 33, 44

Published in Print: March 30, 1994, as What If Education Broke Out All Over?
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