Saturday, June 14, 2008

Is Education Overrated?

Recently, John McCain opposed a bill requiring equal pay for women. He received a maelstrom of blogosphere criticism for his assertion that what women needed was "education and training." Let's, for the moment, set aside the fact that we were talking about women with equal education and training. Was what John McCain said really so different from the same tired lines we always hear about education?

Education as a panacea

Both Barack Obama and John McCain's websites highlight our failing educational systems. McCain focuses on public schools "cultural problems" and lack of choice. (Read: Fearful parents should be able to remove their children from schools filled with the other.) Obama wants to provide funding, improve teacher pay and make a college education affordable for everyone.

Regardless of whose position you most agree with (and I admit that I agree with Obama's), the implication remains the same. Without education, children will fail in life. They will not be able to get good jobs. They will be poor. They will always struggle. And all of this joblessness, poverty, and struggle will be the result of their poor education. You will be hard pressed to find anyone who will disagree with that statement. No one seems to question it at all.

What do we mean when we say education?

About a year ago, I was on a mini-tour outside of Quetzaltenango, Guatemala. My boyfriend and I were on our way to some natural hot springs called Las Fuentes Georginas. Sharing the van with us were two other tourists, one woman from DC and one from Australia. As we drove the winding road to the hot springs, passing Mayan farmers working their fields, the Australian commented on the impressiveness of their mountainside agriculture. The American quickly responded that the Peace Corp had come in and shown them how to do everything.

Now, for those of you who do not know, indigenous people of the Americas have always been some of the most gifted agriculturalists in the world. Their efforts over centuries have brought an incredible array of foods that the world relies on to survive, most importantly corn and potatoes. In fact, recent scholarship has focused on how to undo some of the western agricultural practices imposed on indigenous people by our so-called experts and on learning about their much more sustainable traditional ones.

The point of my story being that the American could not conceive that someone without a formal education could know something. It was easier for her to believe that a twenty-something Peace Corp volunteer would know more than a 40 year old farmer who had centuries of knowledge passed down to him or her.

When we say education, we mean formal education. We mean education that comes with a piece of paper. We mean that someone who has already been certified as worthy confers on us this same worthiness. We can then show this paper to the world and say, you see, I deserve to make a decent living.

Is formal education just stratification?

For employers, the formal education system is, at best, a shortcut. Presumably, that piece of paper evidences a certain level of knowledge and ability that the employer can rely on. But since not everyone has the opportunity to get that piece of paper, it also acts as a barrier and as a means of conferring status from one generation to the next. If you are wealthy and one of your parents went to college, you are far more likely to go yourself.

Employers are not necessarily conscious of the prejudicial filtering effect of this system. Every nonprofit I have worked for has been chagrined at the lack of diversity in their offices. They often set up diversity committees to figure out what is going wrong. They think of elaborate ways to recruit a more diverse staff.

The reason non-profits are not diverse (ethnically or economically) is simple. Minorities are disproportionately poor. They have less opportunity to go to college. Since nonprofits require a bachelors to sweep the floor, they filter out good people who had less opportunities in life. (On top of which, the main entry point to the world of nonprofits and government is through unpaid internships, which no poor person can afford to take.)

What is societies responsibility to business and vice versa?

There was a time when business was required to provide training to their employees. Then, at least, if an employer was going to make money from your labor, they had to provide you the skills to do it. Today, we are expected to obtain the skills ourselves. Employers want society to provide education. They want their employees to have previous experience. For-profits don't want to waste a penny of their bottom line on training. Non-profits use the excuse of few resources.

In fact, university education itself has changed. It is no longer about a liberal arts education. It isn't about pondering the meaning of existence or critical thinking about the issues of the day. It has become, more and more, about simply providing the skills that businesses are looking for. If our entire education system revolves around what business wants, is it any wonder that business has taken over our political and personal lives as well?

Does an "uneducated" person deserve their fate?

When we were kids, my father used to tell my sister that, if she didn't improve in school and go to college, she would end up flipping burgers in Wags Restaurant. (Wags was a lot like Denny's, if you're not familiar.) This was said with absolute certainty, without any doubt as to whether or not this most terrible fate would be deserved (or if it was a terrible fate at all).

When I was in high school, a classmate of mine was stabbed to death. During the trial, the defense brought up his poor performance in school as evidence of his inherent badness. The logic went that, if he performed poorly in school, he must be one of those bad kids. If he was one of those bad kids, he must have done everything that the defense said he did. They bought it and the murderer got off.

Whenever we hear about a farmworker making pennies and living in a cardboard box, or an inner city youth who can't find a job, or an Appalachian former coal miner barely surviving, our response is that they need eduction. The implication is twofold. Without a formal education, it is acceptable that someone can't even make enough to feed their family, regardless of how hard they work. And without a formal education, a person doesn't have the ability, knowledge or skills to contribute to society in a way that deserves decent compensation.

What role should education play in our lives?

I'm not suggesting we all embrace illiteracy and ignorance. I'm saying that knowledge from a professor duly authorized by the university system is not the only kind of knowledge there is. Not only people with graduate degrees deserve to live humanly.

Perhaps we need to start questioning the motives of people for whom formal education is their answer to everything. Perhaps we need to ask ourselves how much our idea of education should revolve around certification of the skills some well-paying businesses want and more around how to produce a just society in which everyone can participate.

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