Re-examining Education

Here is a provocative title for you! Bryan Caplan, professor of economics at George Mason University, wrote The Case against Education; Why the Education System is a Waste of Time and Money.

Caplan’s thesis is that most of what we learn in the traditional education system is irrelevant. Much of the subject material, apart from basic literacy and numeracy, is of little use in a practical sense. Further, most students spend a lot of time in lessons bored and often disengaged.

Caplan believes that the principal function of education is to signal to prospective employers the employability of young people. Succeeding at school and university, he argues, merely indicates that the student is:

  • Intelligent,
  • Conscientious, and
  • Conformist.

He maintains these are the prime qualities employers desire in young people as employees. Further, if this is what education is about, much of what is taught and done in schools and universities is irrelevant and wasteful.

Now I have some sympathy for Caplan’s point of view. Our education system is indeed inefficient and its aims ill-defined. But my major point of difference with Caplan would be his assumption that the sole purpose of education is to prepare young people for employment. Certainly that is a major function of education, but I believe education has a broader purpose than that. I will return to that discussion later.

(I read recently of a young woman suing her university, the Anglia Ruskin University in the UK, because after graduating with a degree in international business management strategy, she was unable to obtain employment! “I hope that bringing this case will set a precedent so that students can get value for money’” she said. If she succeeds in this noble venture she should beware that courses will become much more difficult and that failure rates will escalate. What’s more a “soft” degree like the one she enrolled for would be unlikely to be offered.)

Let me begin with one of my major concerns about the education system.  It places far too much weight on academic learning whereas we know many of our most important skills are learnt experientially.

Governments, urged on by the teachers’ unions are seeking to have more and more of our young people complete high school (resulting, as the unions desire, in the employment of more teachers).  In some jurisdictions schools are rewarded for their retention rates, irrespective of the academic achievements of their students during their tenure. This inspires schools to be innovative in keeping children in schools but not to be innovative in promoting learning.

As a consequence of this we have a whole lot of young people trapped in schools who don’t want to be there. Many of them, particularly boys, are disruptive, interfering with the learning opportunities of those students around them who actually want to learn. The recalcitrant students are not learning anything of consequence and these are largely wasted years for them.

I know I am a reactionary, but I suspect we got it better 50 years ago.

In those simpler times children with little academic ability left school early and found employment. They worked as juniors in shops, took on apprenticeships or whatever. Mind you those were times of full employment and when non-skilled labour was still in high demand. But the point is that those not academically inclined were not clogging up the education system but out making a contribution. This was really a win-win situation. Not only were the schools better off but those young people who left and gained employment felt much better about themselves being useful and competent at their work, a psychological state they were most unlikely to achieve in school.

I have been active in the education sector for many years. I have spoken at national conferences of educators on such issues as the future of work and employers expectations of education. I have chaired the board of an indigenous school. I have been a member of a university council. I have led university research groups. I have been involved in initiatives trying to ensure young people obtained employment. I mention this to assure you that not only do I have a great interest in education but that I also have some reasonable knowledge in this field.

Twenty years ago I was approached by some teachers from a local high school complaining about how disruptive some disengaged boys were in their classes. I was chair of the local Commerce Queensland regional council at the time. I asked the teachers to help me facilitate a program for these recalcitrant boys. This was difficult in itself because the Education Department had strict limits to the time students could be withdrawn from school. (This of course reflected the prevailing ethos that the only solution to educational problems must be resolved by schooling, notwithstanding the fact that schooling can often be the source of the problem!)

But eventually we won approval to take these boys out of school for a day per week. A number of the employers who belonged to Commerce Queensland volunteered to take the boys into their workplaces and give them useful things to do. The outcome was a revelation. Firstly the employers reported no problems with these so-called “difficult” boys. They said they were willing workers and made a useful contribution in the workplace. What’s more a number of the boys were offered employment by these employers as a result of our little project.

As well the teachers reported that the behaviour of the boys improved when in school. Many of the boys had poor attendance histories but they never missed turning up for the days they were allowed to work in the local businesses.

There are a lot of lessons to be taken from this little experiment. Suffice is to say that for many young people school is detested because their likelihood of success and the subsequent affirmation of self-worth is minimal. And many young people who won’t do well at school will still succeed if they are given opportunities to learn experientially.

Learning in many schools is rendered less effective by the poor behaviour of students. In many dysfunctional families it seems as if parents have forsaken their proper parental duties including teaching children how to behave properly and this (considerable) burden is shouldered off onto teachers. Many studies have shown that, in poorly performed schools, teachers spend disproportionate time trying to control the behaviour of recalcitrant children rather than teaching. In the absence of proper parental care at home teachers are becoming defacto parents. What’s more in many cases where teachers try to intervene to improve the behaviour of children their authority is weakened by parents siding with their aberrant children.

Moving on to our universities, there are another range of issues.

Firstly, teaching in universities takes a back seat role to research. Our best scholars are lured into research at the expense of lecturing. What’s more many of those relegated to lecturing, although they might know their subject matter well, have poor teaching skills and find difficulty in imparting their knowledge to students. I believe we would be better off if universities were better at imparting knowledge and gave that a higher priority.

Additionally universities (and schools also for that matter) have been captured by the left wing intelligentsia and students at a very susceptible age are submerged in so-called progressive propaganda. My granddaughter in her first week of a teaching degree was inundated with material on diversity and gender politics before ever being tutored on how to transfer learning between herself and students.

University degrees have been devalued in recent times because of a desire to ensure that most students graduate. This invidious trend has been spurred by universities in particular whose business model revolves around attracting foreign students. Students who can barely speak English are somehow assisted to doing enough to graduate.

But some of the problems of school are carried on into universities. Leaving aside the issue of what we expect from education, students in universities (just as in schools) are often not engaged by their courses and question the relevance of a lot of the subject matter.

One of the ambitions I had for the workplaces I was involved in the 1980’s and 1990’s was to be able to provide career progression for employees based on the skills they acquired. This led me and my colleagues to embrace competency based training. In tandem with this I realised I would have to know more about adult learning.  Consequently I became acquainted with the work of Malcolm Knowles on adult learning (andragogy).

Knowles pointed out that people learned best those things that they had an immediate need to know. In fact we are not very good at learning stuff that we might possibly need in the future, particularly if its relevance is not immediately apparent. Knowles also pointed out that experience (including mistakes) provides the basis for most adult learning activities. He believed that for most of us learning is problem centred rather than content oriented.

Now one of the problems in the field of education is that many people, particularly teachers and academics, believe that education is primarily delivered in schools and universities and educational outcomes are best measured by a person’s academic qualifications.

I have a couple of university degrees but I have maintained for many years that what most of what I have learnt that is most important to me, I have learnt outside the formal education system. Malcolm Knowles was right insofar as you learn best that which you need to know. In my career when I needed to know something I first of all sought out others who I believed had such knowledge. Secondly I read extensively in the areas of greatest concern for me. Thirdly I took time out to review what I had done, what had worked, what hadn’t and why.

The growing movement towards credentialism devalues experiential learning.

In some enlightened institutions both can go hand in hand. When I was managing power stations in central Queensland, I was a supporter of the Engineering Faculty of CQU. This university contrived over the duration of their engineering degrees to have students spend a couple of six month placements with employers. We hosted many such students in our power stations. On graduation, not only did they have a relevant degree but they also had enough work experience to make them immediately useful for a prospective employer. We hired quite a number of these graduates to our mutual benefit.

Apprenticeships have been a productive way of having young people (and sometimes adults as well) acquire vocational skill whilst working in real workplaces under the tutelage of those who already have the skills. (Interestingly, from my experience and also from some studies I’ve read, having those who already have the skills supervise those acquiring the skills generally ensures quality outcomes. This is because if students with lesser skills are able to gain the qualification it devalues the qualification for all those that have it.) The apprentices also are required to complete some formal studies. But by and large we have that nice marriage of academic learning and experiential learning. I suspect if we could enlarge this model and find ways of allowing children to access these opportunities earlier rather than wait until they have finished high school, we would be better off.

In my opinion we need to find pathways that enable those with little academic ability to get into workplaces where they can learn experientially at least in their mid-teens. Many of these people who are kinaesthetic learners have high potential if given the right opportunity, never mind they have not graduated from high school.

But let us go back to the beginning. What, indeed, should be the purpose of education?

Caplan’s notion that education is primarily about preparing young people for employment is partially true but ignores other important purposes of education.

Education initially should prepare us for life. Making us employable is certainly a significant goal in that regard. But it is only part of the picture.

The first thing we should acknowledge is that education is not the sole province of schools and universities. Much of what is important to us is learnt in the home, in the playground and in the workplace.

In recent decades education has become commodified. Schools and universities have strived to manufacture education as a product. These institutions are driven to sell their “products” to the world. In an age of credentialism, educational institutions feel it is their duty to maximise the likelihood that students (their “clients”) pass exams and gain qualifications.  It is unlikely that this will change in the near future. Therefore I am compelled to ask is this what we expect of education? We need to be careful that this process does not diminish the natural curiosity and love of learning that most children possess. Compelling them to sit long hours in class rooms where they are not engaged does not help.

There are other undesirable outcomes from our current approach to education.

The cossetting of children by parents and the spoonfeeding by educators is contributing to the delay of the modern generation to reach adulthood. Research by American psychologist, Dr Jean Twenge, indicates (at least in America and probably in other Western countries) that young people are:

  • Less likely to leave their home without their parents,
  • Spending more time by themselves,
  • Taking longer to get a driver’s licence,
  • Drinking less and taking fewer drugs,
  • Less likely to have a part-time job, and
  • Starting dating at a later age.

Now some of these outcomes are no doubt beneficial, but overall it would seem that we are infantilising our children. So as a result of helicopter parents and educational institutions that treat our children as helpless victims by providing “trigger warnings” and “safe places”, we are creating vulnerable people who will have difficulty in facing the natural difficulties that life throws our way.

Now if you take Bryan Caplan at his word, he believes that all education outside basic literacy and numeracy is wasted. But in the environment of today, surely education that helped us be more psychologically robust would benefit us in all spheres of life. Getting out earlier to engage the real world in experiential learning would certainly help facilitate such a process.

As well, knowledge of some subjects might help little in gaining employment but can contribute a lot to our own quality of life.

For example, Caplan denigrates the undertaking of the study of music because few who do so become professional musicians. Yet many of us who have studied music in one way or another but have not made it a profession, would attest that music has brought us great pleasure.

And what about philosophy? There are few professional philosophers in the world, but a basic understanding of philosophy and ethics grounds many of our lives.

History is another subject that does little for our resume´s but adds greatly to our understanding of who we are and how we became to be. These are important questions for many of us. Thus a knowledge of history can enhance our sense of self and well-being. (I read somewhere recently that the successful resolution of the Cuban missile crisis in 1962  by USA President John F Kennedy was aided by his knowledge of history. So perhaps a study of history has practical elements as well!)

But of course these are personal choices. There will be many who are just as inimical to the study of history, philosophy and music as there are to the study of algebra, geometry and physics. And of course apropos my previous remarks on experiential learning, instead of music, history and philosophy, there are many who would love to be tutored in pottery, cabinetmaking or woodturning.

So perhaps it is time to summarise my thoughts. In general terms I believe that educationalists:

  • Do not sufficiently recognise the contribution to useful learning by contributors other than schools and universities.
  • Devalue experiential learning over academic learning.
  • Prepare students poorly for employment.
  • Sometimes reinforce dependency rather than autonomy.

But beyond this we should concede that education has a greater purpose beyond preparing young people for employment. There are things that we can learn which will enhance our lives even if they don’t improve our employment prospects.

Furthermore, what we can learn to further our understanding of the world, and what we can learn to enable us to more productively engage with the world, in my mind, is more important than what we learn to make a living.

And so I would conclude that there is more to education than value for money or its capacity to provide employment opportunities. Good education helps us lead useful and satisfying lives. Good education makes us more than better employees, it makes us better people.


2 Replies to “Re-examining Education”

  1. Ted, as great article.

    in regards to your favourable comments on apprenticeships and training methodology can you opine on why over recent years the drop out rates (not completing) of apprenticeships has substantial increased (e.g. VIC TAFE)?


    1. I am not close enough to have a considered opinion, Chris. But I wonder if our young people, with an undue sense of entitlement, don’t have the stamina and resilience they once had.I have written in the past of the long-term benefits people derive from being able to delay gratification. Perhaps this is another manifestation of that problem.

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