Progress, Academics, Streetlights, and Keys
By Bryan Caplan
The best argument against vocational education is economic change. What’s the point of preparing students for occupations that won’t even exist by the time they finish their studies? In Left Back, Diane Ravitch skewers Progressive-era educators for their lack of vision:
The surveyors had a static notion of both the individuals’ capacity for development and society’s needs. They did not see youngsters as people with curiosity and imagination that transcended their likely occupational role, nor could they imagine a future in which men and women, by improving their skills and knowledge, could change their occupation, indeed change society. Nor had they any sense of a dynamic society in which the nature of occupations was regularly redefined by technological change.
Well-put. Vocational educators are trying to hit a moving target. Indeed, they’re trying to hit a target they have yet to see. But that’s life. When you prepare for an uncertain future, it’s prudent to:
- Try to make a reasonable forecast using available information
- Focus more on broadly useful skills instead of narrow specialties
- Have back-up plans
- Expect to periodically retrain to adjust to changing circumstances
Unless I misunderstand her, Ravitch draws a radically different conclusion. To her, a dynamic economy somehow argues for a traditional academic education focused on literature, history, science, and foreign languages. What a non sequitur. Yes, it’s hard to figure out which occupation students will have in the future. How is that a reason to prepare students for occupations they almost certainly won’t have?
The economy is changing in countless ways, but it would be amazing if literature or history saw major job growth. It’s easier to imagine job growth in science and (living) foreign languages. But is the labor market really likely to reward the degree of scientific or linguistic competence the typical student can realistically attain? A B+ in high school science or foreign language* doesn’t open occupational doors for you today, and probably won’t in the future, either.
Before they prepare their students for the future, educators should think long and hard about what the future is likely to hold. Point taken. But economic uncertainty in no excuse for traditional academic education. Teaching Latin because you don’t know whether nanotech will work is as foolish as looking for your keys under the streetlight because it’s brighter there.
* In fact, voice recognition technology is getting so good that I expect employers’ demand for foreign language skills to sharply fall over the next few decades.