Is education’s sole purpose to prepare students for the jobs of the future? I am positive that many educators who read my headline immediately ask, “What a dumb question! Sure, that’s what we’re supposed to be doing.” But, is that really the case?
Educators have long accepted as a maxim that education should be about preparing students for the jobs of the future, jobs that don’t even exist yet. But is that possible? Can we actually, without a doubt, predict the kinds of jobs our students will have twenty or thirty years from now? If not, then are we not gambling with students’ lives by teaching skills to students declared by gurus and educational prophets funded by corporations to be necessary for our students’ survival?
We all know that the future can change suddenly and drastically. The fortunes of one industry can be sunk by a single invention. Examples? The record industry, video rental stores, etc. A whole family of industries can become obsolete with the changing times and literally, in the blink of the eye. Why then would we want to prepare students for jobs that don’t exist yet, especially when there is not a single human that I know capable of seeing into the future enough to tell us what our students need?
Take my own hometown community. Fiber optic manufacturers sprang up all around, promising to make our area the “Silicon Valley of the East.” To foster the promise of a future boom, our local fiber optic industry spent a great deal of time speaking and working with our schools, talking about the kinds of skills they needed kids to have in order get good jobs with their industry. There were joint workshops with their educational experts, exchanges literature and teaching ideas, and even visits to our schools to speak to our kids about the importance of obtaining the skills that their businesses sorely needed them to have. These evangelists of prosperity were everywhere, preaching and teaching the kinds of skills they wanted kids to have so that they could work in their factories when they graduated. Six years later, the bottom fell out of the fiber option industry. Companies closed and consolodated. Thousands were laid off. Plants were closed. Many of those employes of those companies were left stranded, with a knowledge specific to the cabling industry, that was now useless because the only industry around was in a downward spiral, with little hope of things ever returning back to the earlier boom days.
I am certainly not suggesting that we should not prepare students for the future. I am suggesting that to prepare students according to current industrial and corporate specifications is shortsighted and morally wrong.
Our job as educators should be much broader. Instead of providing graduates with industry specific skills, we need to prepare students who can leave our education system and do anything. They should be be able to act intelligently, learn as demanded, and be active citizens of the community. We should not be job trainers for the local factories. Those factories do not have the interests of our students at heart, nor should they. Their interest is in short term profits. Educators have to be visionaries and interested in the long-term. This means thinking about the educational big picture. We can work with our local industries and businesses to provide them citizens who they can then train for their jobs. To allow ourselves as an educational institution to become solely job training institutions is shortsighted, malpractice, and a disservice to our students.