An Education?

The conference was titled, “The Next New World.” It took place last month in San Francisco, and was hosted by Thomas Friedman, columnist for The New York Times and author of The World Is Flat. Friedman has been writing about the digital revolution for years now, and his thinking on the matter is wide-ranging and incisive.

In his keynote address, Friedman describes “an inflection” that occurred coincidental with the great recession of 2008—the technical transformations that began with the personal computer, continued with the internet, and are ongoing with smart phones and the cloud. Friedman is not the first to note that this transformation is the equivalent of what began in 1450 with the invention of the printing press, the so-called Gutenberg revolution. The difference is that the Gutenberg revolution took 200 years to sweep through society. The digital revolution has taken two decades.

5351622529_5d4c782817Friedman and his co-speakers at the conference are right in articulating that today’s revolution has meant that there is a new social contract extant, one based not upon high wages for middle skills (think auto manufacturing or bookkeeping), but upon high wages for high skills (think data analysis or mobile programming). Everything from driving cars to teaching children to milking cows has been overtaken by digital technology in the last 20 years, and so the average employee is now faced with a work place where wages and benefits don’t flow from a commitment to steady long term work, but where constant innovation is required for jobs that last an average of 4.6 years. As Friedman adds—tellingly I think—in today’s next new world, “no one cares what you know.” They care only about what you can do.

Friedman adds in his address that the real focus of the discussions at the conference can be abridged by two questions: “How [in this new world] does my kid get a job?” and, “How does our local school or university need to adapt?’’

All well and good. Everyone has to eat, never mind grow a career or pay a mortgage. What bothers me however, in all these worthwhile discussions, is the underlying assumption that the education happening at schools and universities should essentially equate to job training. I’ve checked the Oxford; nowhere does that esteemed dictionary define education as training for a job. The closest it comes is to say that education can be training “in a particular subject,” not a skill.

I would contend that what a young person knows, as opposed to what they can do, should matter to an employer. What’s more, I think it should matter to all of us. Here’s a definitional point for education from the Oxford that I was delighted to see: “an enlightening experience.”

A better world requires a better educated populace, especially women. For the human race to progress (perhaps survive), more people need to understand the lessons of history. More people have to know how to think rationally, act responsibly, and honour compassion, courage and commitment. None of that necessarily comes with job training for a data analyst or mobile programmer.

And maybe, if the range of jobs available out there is narrowing to ever more specific, high technical-skills work, applicable to an ever more narrow set of industries, then that set of industries should be taking on a greater role in instituting the needed training regimes. Maybe as an addendum to what can be more properly termed ‘an education.’

I’m sure that Friedman and his conference colleagues would not disagree with the value of an education that stresses knowledge, not skills. And yes, universities have become too elitist and expensive everywhere, especially in America. But my daughter attends Quest University in Squamish, British Columbia, where, in addition to studying mathematics and biology, she is obliged to take courses in Rhetoric, Democracy and Justice, and Global Perspectives.

Not exactly the stuff that is likely to land her a job in Silicon Valley, you might say, and I would have to reluctantly agree. But then I would again argue that it should better qualify her for that job. Certainly those courses will make her a better citizen, something the world is in dire need of, but I would also argue that a degree in “Liberal Arts and Sciences” does in fact better qualify her for that job, because those courses will teach her how to better formulate an argument, better understand the empowerment (and therefore the greater job satisfaction) that comes with the democratic process, and better appreciate the global implications of practically all we do workwise these days.

Damn tootin’ that education in liberal arts and sciences better qualifies her for that job in Silicon Valley. That and every other job out there.

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