Friday, May 24, 2013

Education in the New Millennium

Once in a while it seems like a subject just pops up in several unconnected sources on the Internet at more of less the same time. Recently, a number of authors are questioning the relevance of American education given the realities of the new millennium. I believe education in this country, particularly K-12, was designed to feed labor into the industrial machine. College was primarily for the intellectual and social elite. A high school diploma guaranteed lifetime employment at some unskilled or semiskilled job in a factory. Any college diploma guaranteed lifetime employment as a white collar functionary somewhere in the commercial/industrial complex. Large scale democratization of the university began with the GI bill designed to return the veterans of World War II to the civilian work force in a time controlled manner. Now almost every parent believes their child is entitled to a college degree and a good paying job sitting in front of a computer screen.

The educational bureaucracy that started at the beginning of the Twentieth Century has grown. It is the nature of bureaucracies to grow until the size and cost of the associated administrative burden leads to their implosion and collapse. In a recent post I discussed the increase in the cost of higher education. Since 1980 the cost of a university degree has outrun inflation by 500%. K-12 is no better. Since 1962 the cost of educating a student in inflation adjusted constant dollars has increased almost 700% while the quality of the product has declined.

The implosion is already beginning in places like the Chicago public school system, where entire schools have been shut down because they are so badly run they can not be saved. The entire cost of state and local government is beginning to bankrupt a few municipalities and counties in various parts of the country. Obviously, the cost of education is only one component in this problem, but the rising cost and declining quality (particularly in major urban areas) of public education is a disturbing problem.

Serious people are beginning to question the value of a college education. With the cost of a private liberal arts education pushing past the $160,000 mark both parents and their children are beginning to wonder if it is worth that kind of money to get a job as a barista at Starbucks (if you are lucky). It wasn’t that many years ago that conventional wisdom taught that a college degree, any college degree, would be worth about $500,000 over the course of a lifetime.

Some pundits are predicting the demise of the brick and mortar school. I think that is a little premature, but college degrees are being offered on the Internet. The prices are still artificially high, supported by federally guaranteed student loans, but Kevin Kelly’s law states that the cost of digital content will over time asymptotically approach zero. Once the lectures are in the can, a graduate student or a part time contract employee sitting in front of a home computer in his pajamas can grade the papers and facilitate class discussions at a very low cost. While I wouldn’t try to practice medicine without the degree and the license, credentials in some important areas, such as information technology, are becoming less important. The proven ability to set up and operate computer networks for small offices is of greater value than a degree in computer science. Remember, Bill Gates is a college dropout.

It any society, even those with socialist economies, there will always be the wealthy power elite. That is a given. In the new millennium who will do the heavy lifting for the few? Richard Young proposes two groups, the new skill trades and the service support businesses. The skill trades would include medical professionals, engineers and scientists as well as electricians, plumbers, and automotive technicians. Service support workers would include government employees, the military, businesses that service the general needs of society, and large scale agriculture. These two groups would continue to require considerable amounts of specialized training, but not a traditional liberal arts education.

The problem with this model or any similar analysis concerning the changing demands placed upon education is the average individual. There just aren’t enough new economy jobs to absorb large numbers of men and women with average or slightly below average intelligence and no particular skills. In the years following the collapse of 2008 we are beginning to see a small but historically significant decline in the percentage of actively employed Americans. While an educated few, like Henry David Thoreau did is his day, will consciously opt out of the belly of the beast, there is a growing underclass. Over 47 million Americans collect food stamps.

In the years following World War II America was blessed with the only industrial infrastructure in the world that did not suffer serious damage in the war. That gave us two decades of unimaginable prosperity. For the first time in history an unskilled worker could support a family in a manner that was the envy of the world. Now globalization, automation, and government regulation have combined to destroy those jobs. Sources as diverse as Bill Clinton and Steven Jobs have stated those jobs are not coming back.

Jeremiah (8:20)

The harvest is past,
The summer is ended,
And we are not saved.

How then is wealth to be divided now that robots create the robots that create the computers that manipulate the knowledge that defines power in this brave new world?

What is the role of education in the new millennium?

No comments:

Post a Comment