July 31, 2010

Education: Top-Down State Control

After the American Century

Each year at the end of July roughly the same story appears inmost European countries. Thousands of applicants for higher education have been denied entrance. There are not enough places to fill demand. In part, this is because many more want to be doctors than any state can afford to educate and because certain trendy subjects attract a crowd - notably journalism and media studies.

But there is a deeper problem, which is that state bureaucrats believe they are wiser than the students or the professors, and think that no education should be offered unless there seems to be certain employment available. The bureaucratic mind does not like uncertainty, creative interpretation, or imagination. The ideal education, from the bureaucratic perspective, is one that teaches a certain skill which fills an obvious social need, such as nursing. Subjects that develop abstract thinking, creativity, and interdisciplinary capabilities are viewed with suspicion. Every year the press obediently repeats, with a sneer, that there is a limit to how many philosophers or literary critics a society needs.

Strictly speaking, it is true that the market for full-time literary critics or philosophers is small. But the need for critical thinking and creativity is great, and the vocational approach to education will not cultivate the mind. Likewise, if we train only carpenters and no architects, then building innovations will be few and far between, and the buildings will be as bad as public housing planned by bureaucrats. But this example is still too vocational. I know a successful comic book artist in New York who received his BA in geology - and he swears that every landscape he draws is geologically feasible, though that is not the main reason he has steady work. A woman I knew in graduate school did not become a historian but opened an excellent restaurant.  A fellow I knew as an undergraduate majored in English but became a successful radio announcer.

In short, the bureaucrats and the newspapers are not thinking ahead. They imagine that the skills we can identify today are all that is needed to solve the problems or seize the possibilities of tomorrow. Isn't it more likely that we cannot fully imagine the future, and the best thing we can offer students is teaching them how to learn, how to create, and how to think critically? People's careers are not all going to be predictable, i.e. one studies nursing and becomes a nurse for 40 years. I know a successful computer programmer who studied English, and a brilliant real estate agent who studied art history. Likewise, the first generation of computer programmers by definition was not trained to do that work, and many pioneers of the Internet emerged from the counter-culture.

Moreover, the rationale for education is not merely vocational. Education is also needed to ensure that citizens are competent to vote intelligently, to debate effectively, and to consume wisely. A narrow, vocational education is not going to produce citizens who can do these things well. 

Why try to force students into careers that they do not want, by creating quotas for non-vocational subjects? Why not show a little humility and flexibility in Ministries of Education? Top-down state control of education is undemocratic and counter-productive. The careers people actually have are far more numerous than the courses of study can ever be, and a vocational approach will only be able to prepare students for a fraction of the jobs of tomorrow.