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The educated Luddite 

On this Father's Day, I am guessing many parents are wondering what kind of advice to give their children about living long, happy, healthy, meaningful, fulfilling lives - that hopefully include satisfying careers from which financial independence from said parents is a happy result.

One of the great stories we tell about the United States is how socially and economically mobile our society has always been. The Horatio Alger "rags to riches" parable that with work, education and good morals anyone can become rich - or at least comfortably middle class - was certainly drummed into me as a child. Neither my mother or father had a college degree, but they both saw college as path toward a better life and encouraged me to attend. And that's worked out pretty well. My college degrees have been the gateway to a career that has employed and fed me and mine for nearly 40 years.

But amid a growing number of voices, NY Times columnist Paul Krugman is questioning whether a college education is still a means of achieving economic security. Klugman compares today's changing job market to the Luddite movement of 18th century England in his recent column Sympathy for the Luddites. About the Luddites he observes:

...the workers hurt most were those who had, with effort, acquired valuable skills — only to find those skills suddenly devalued.

So are we living in another such era? And, if we are, what are we going to do about it?

Traditionally vocational and professional education (gaining specialized skills) has been an insurance policy against being displaced by new technologies. While technology has been good at replacing repetitive physical skills and low-level communication skills  (see Gone Missing), artificial intelligence has remained, uh, artificial. But now Krugman writes

Today, however, a much darker picture of the effects of technology on labor is emerging. In this picture, highly educated workers are as likely as less educated workers to find themselves displaced and devalued, and pushing for more education may create as many problems as it solves. [basing this on a report by the Kinsey Global Institute on disruptive technologies] ... Even a quick scan of the report’s list suggests that some of the victims of disruption will be workers who are currently considered highly skilled, and who invested a lot of time and money in acquiring those skills. For example, the report suggests that we’re going to be seeing a lot of “automation of knowledge work,” with software doing things that used to require college graduates. Advanced robotics could further diminish employment in manufacturing, but it could also replace some medical professionals.


Education, then, is no longer the answer to rising inequality,
if it ever was (which I doubt).

Hmmmm, I will leave to the economic pundits to solve the problems of increasing economic disparities in the U.S. and elsewhere. My question, then, is just was is education the answer to?

To the dismay of the more conservative sectors of our society, I have personally long held that we ought to view education as far more than vocational training anyway. One of my favorite quotes is by Sidney Harris -  "The primary purpose of a liberal education is to make one’s mind a pleasant place in which to spend one’s leisure." How impractical, how wasteful, and how vague.

Yet how important.

My son is getting closer to getting his bachelor's degree in graphic arts (he promises). He already has an AA in video production. Given today's competitive job market in these areas, will he ever use these degrees to earn a middle-class standard of living? I don't know. He is talented and hard-working so he has a good chance. But I don't know and he didn't like my suggestion of guaranteed employability as a speech therapist.

But I am not sure that career preparation is as important as it once was. Chances are that the economic success of Brady's generation is as likely to come from entrepreneurship as it is follwing pre-planned vocational path. 

Oh, my answer to "what is an education the answer to?" I don't think there is one right answer, but an answer that is right for each individual child and family.

Good luck, moms and dads of today. 

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Reader Comments (2)

In the words of B F Skinner, "Education is what survives when what has been learned has been forgotten".
I think that this insight provides a stark lesson for where the utilitarian, vocational education that has seen such growth over recent decades may lead.
Here in the UK, degree courses such as Media Studies, Leisure Management and so on have been cited, perhaps unfairly, as archetypical vocational, professional qualifications that youngsters have been led to believe would lead (at great financial cost) to a lifetime of employment security. Not so. Sadly I fear that hundreds of thousands of these students have been sold down the river for the sake of national economic prosperity. The previous government here actually combined two departments to create the Department for Education and Employment - what a giveaway...
I think that the oft-derided traditional degree qualifications can now be seen to offer very modern benefits - the ability to use one's brain rather than to acquire specialist training is surely the only hope for those having to cope with the shifting sands of a career path in the future.

June 17, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterStephen Bailey

Hi Stephen,

The sad thing is that is approach doesn't even lead to national economic prosperity - except perhaps for the top couple percent.

After decades of teaching conformity, perhaps we need to start teaching kids how to be non-conformists. Or is that even possible?

Really appreciated your comment and international perspective,


June 20, 2013 | Registered CommenterDoug Johnson

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