The Economic Value Of A Learning Society

Education is simply the soul of a society as it passes from one generation to another.    G. K. Chesterton

This picture taken on February 25, 2013 shows ...

It may be more than just a coincidence that our systems of higher education are struggling to define or re-define themselves just as we are experiencing one of the deepest stretches of economic trouble in our lifetime.  The economic hole we have fallen into, both in the U. S. and globally, will require solutions across multiple dimensions, but none will be more important than how we collectively approach the education of young people.   In this arena – education – we are slipping inexorably down a bad path.

A recent study by the OECD reports that the skill level of the average American has fallen well below that of the average competitor around the globe.   We are less literate, less capable in math, and less likely to perform well using technology to solve problems.   The only saving grace is that in the U. S. we are able to over-optimize fewer available skilled resources; other countries seem to under-optimize a larger set of available skilled resources.  This is a set of circumstances doomed to failure over time, as it is obviously easier  to  find ways to optimize  human capital than it is to create new human capital.  The former is a matter of policy; the latter is a matter of education.  And the education battle is not the one we want to lose.

Our universities and K -12 system seem to be adrift, their pedagogy informed more by budget pressures from political office holders and donors than by a coherent epistemology.  Policy makers  and politicians want more STEM; educators want more STEAM.   Both, in ways that are eerily similar, are engaging in social engineering to support an ideology.  At the macro-level, in both worlds, it’s all about teaching a point of view, rather than teaching students to learn.  We seem hell bent on an arbitrarily linear approach to engineering a “useful” or job-securing education, from which we continue to get mixed results.  Throwing an “A’ into the STEM curriculum is a minor change, and it still  leaves most educational systems focused on “jobs.”  And then, the more  politicians push for vocational education, the further we fall behind in math, science and literacy.   It’s not that we can’t create engineers, or business people, or computer scientists.  We do.  And it’s not so much that we can’t do engineering, or do business, or do computing.  We do.  But all the while, as we teach young people to do these various skilled things, something seems to be missing.

What is this something that is missing, and why is it missing? The answer, or at least a point of departure, might be found in information economics.   Information in systems tends to be valuable and easy to create and distribute, but very difficult  to legitimate and control.   At a macro level, when we attempt to rigorously define what information is and is not important, and we then try to control and constrain the information that we have deemed important, we destroy value. Because we predetermine macro outcomes, we are, in essence, teaching to the test, not creating learners.  We are weeding out diversity, friction, and heat, in our attempt to force learning into an artificially straight path.  This is both foolhardy and bound to fail.

Instead, if we wish to create a real “learning society,” we should invest in a diverse, broad-based, liberal arts curriculum as the foundation of both higher education institutions and K – 12.    The reason would seem both obvious and simple.  A mono-cultural curriculum – or, worse yet, a large-scale policy mandating a mono-cultural curriculum – focused on teaching to the job may very well create a society of trained workers; but it will fail at creating a learning society.  If we want to maintain a position of being inventive and vibrant and robust, we need an inventive, vibrant and robust educational philosophy.   Just as teaching to the test distorts the learning process in ways that are often directly in opposition to the desired outcomes of the test, a teaching policy aimed at jobs alone may very well end up destroying jobs, or at the very least compromising a truly innovative culture.

linea rectaThe idea of a straight line between “here” and a job is an illusion, at the level of a society.

Political leaders and policy wonks, as well as education leaders, should beware the allure of the straight line, of the perceived direct connection between teaching and jobs.  It may very well be the case that a direct connection exists at the individual level, while at the same time there is no direct connection at the level of a society.  Basing your assumptions on the link between individual and aggregate observations was referred to as casuistry in the old days.  Perhaps nowadays we could be a little more empathetic and simply refer to this as misguided.  In any event, we would all do well to remind ourselves that societies are not individuals and individuals are not societies.  And when we mix those two up while thinking about education, we are setting ourselves up for real problems.

What we need is a “both” approach.  We need to be mindful and attentive to ensuring students are taught the appropriate skills we suspect are going to be important.  Of course.  But we also need to be mindful of developing  21st century learners, living in a learning society.  Both.  Neither learning, nor work, is static.  Both are dynamic, changeable and in many ways unpredictable.  An education that leaves you prepared to prepare will be better than one that leaves you prepared.  And that does not generally seem to be the path we are heading down.

Henry Doss is a student, musician, venture capitalist and volunteer in higher education.  His firm, T2VC, builds startups and the ecosystems that grow them.  His university is UNC Charlotte.


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