An educated citizenry or an efficient workforce?

Having read yet another tweet complaining about the lack of connection between what’s taught in classrooms and what’s needed in the workplace, I posted my own:


It hit a nerve with a number of people.

One of my connections wrote



And another:


This is exactly it. My classes in History are General Education. My goal is to help foster an educated citizenry, not an efficient workforce.

And I am not promoting the other narratives either:

One popular narrative is that we should change education because it is irrelevant to the innovations of the future. In this story, today’s entrepreneurs are lauded, the guys who dropped out of school or didn’t like college because their classes were boring. Their success supposedly proves the irrelevance of our educational system. What it actually does is attest to the role of genius, luck, opportunity and money.

Another narrative links the use of electronic technologies, particularly the web, to making education more relevant. While I am deeply tied to the use of web technologies for teaching, I have not been able to buy into the idea that either the openness of the web or the marketplace of ideas is sufficient for providing a full education.

It’s the same reason I can’t accept the narrative that automated online courses and xMOOCs with peer or graduate student feedback schemes are a substitute for what we’re doing well in our colleges.

The final narrative I reject is the one that says that we live in a post-industrial world, so that many of the skills we used to value (the ability to follow an extended argument, or write coherent prose, or articulate ethics) are no longer needed. We need these skills, not because they are going to be applied somewhere specific, but because they change who we are and make us better people.

Knowledge that transforms students, that turns them into growing, learning, educated people, is by necessity broad and deep. What’s learned in college may have very little application to the specific tasks of a student’s future job.

Education changes people’s broad perspective of the world. It trains habits of mind, not technicians.


Related posts: Relevance in an Age of Forgetting

4 comments to An educated citizenry or an efficient workforce?

  • Hi Lisa,
    It might be useful to investigate the narrative of the rebel against the oppression of education emerging as a hero of capitalism. My guess is the ones who emerge on lists of beatified conservative exemplars initially had no more use for the constraints of school than they would have for the anal rectitude of the conservative mind-set that celebrates them–after they have succeeded. An alternate view of these heroes is to highlight their general focused nature and impatience with orderliness presented to them by others. The turning point where rebel becomes hero happens when money suddenly applies pressure to switch allegiances from questioning accepted wisdom to bathing in the sweet comforts of tax shelters.

    The steps in this transformation from rebel to pirate of the public purse could probably be taught. Selfishness 101.

  • Wonder if we could discuss the difference between learning that’s appropriate for work and learning appropriate for use at college? Can they be separated into distinct categories where work learning habits could be seen to be distinct from college habits? It seems to me that they are hopelessly mixed.
    My first steady job after dropping out of college was on a commercial roofing crew where the other 3 members were university graduates. We handled detail finishing on large projects and leak repairs on older roofs. I believe were picked for our ability to solve problems quickly and it felt like we could see what others couldn’t–like imagining how something came to break and how to fix it quickly.
    If I was asking a question here it might be that higher education allowed us to see past the obvious, weigh options or to engage in some other process of deduction. Is that a characteristic of the way learning was presented to us in the more abstract world of H.E.?

  • Carolyn Jones

    I agree with Scott. The quest for learning has the potential to permeate through society in a myriad of positive ways if allowed to do so freely. The elitism of our educational system has acted as a very effective divisive strategy for far too long. We need to seek ways of making our combined educational systems far more inclusive and encourage those involved in the process to develop a healthy critical appraisal towards all the ideas and information we come across from the widest possible range of sources. I have taught at undergraduate level and witnessed far too many ‘occipitally bruised’ individuals in the course of my work.
    NB: for those who need an explanation of the physiology associated with this remark – the occipital bone is found at the top of the skull – it becomes bruised when pressed against the ground between the legs of the effected – or indeed affected – individual.