Bryan Caplan  

Progress, Academics, Streetlights, and Keys

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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.

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COMMENTS (15 to date)
Shangwen writes:

Economic change is a mixed bag. Along with the disappearance of old types of jobs, low-skilled jobs, etc., you also have the huge expansion of old-fashioned regulated occupations in health care and the like, and sinecureal jobs in the public sector. Setting aside the economic cost of that, those jobs remain appealing to many people, and those jobs will be there. Valuable skilled trades, like electricians, will still exist and are not going to be automated.

The future jobs that we have no way of predicting are all going to be driven by new technology, and therefore few in number. If you're planning your education, people should be more concerned about the jobs those technologies will eliminate, rather than the ones they will create.

An under-discussed factor in this issue is geography and internal migration. In the late 90s and during the internet bubble, there was much discussion about how people could now work anywhere, set up businesses anywhere, etc. But high-tech was then and is now concentrated in a few locations, and that is unlikely to change. High school students should be given lessons on navigating the rental markets in major centers as much as lessons on trig.

Eric Hanneken writes:

In the last ten years or so, software developers have ameliorated a similar problem. The traditional way to create a large system is to spend weeks or months hammering out the requirements and specifications, then do the design work, and then give the design document to programmers so they could implement it. The problem with this approach is that requirements can change after they're written down, and sometimes the customer won't realize what's missing or wrong until he sees the finished product.

The new approaches tend to be fast and iterative. The customer identifies a set of features that's small enough (or scaled down enough) to implement in a short period of time, say two weeks. Programmers get to work and at the end of two weeks, show a working program to the customer. The customer points out what's wrong, and adds a new small set of features to the list. This process is repeated until the customer has no more work for the programmers. The advantage of methods like this is that the programmers can't go on for very long building the wrong thing, unless the customer revises the requirements suddenly and dramatically.

I wonder if education could be revised along these lines. Instead of sending someone to school for 16 years and then kicking him out into the work force, could he perhaps be taught to do something useful (if low paying) for six weeks, then return to school to learn a little more, then go back to work, etc.?

Colin writes:

@Eric Hanneken

I wonder if education could be revised along these lines. Instead of sending someone to school for 16 years and then kicking him out into the work force, could he perhaps be taught to do something useful (if low paying) for six weeks, then return to school to learn a little more, then go back to work, etc.?

To my knowledge this is how most trade schools work. As an electrical apprentice you work 1000 hours, go to school for three months, work 1000 hours, go to school for three months... Until you become a journeyman.

I'm just not sure how this would work for anyone under 12. I can't see demand for an army of 9 year old laborers.

Eric Hanneken writes:

I think decades of child labor laws have limited our imaginations. Farms and Industrial Revolution-era factories used to have little trouble figuring out things for nine-year-olds to do. Likewise present-day employers in poorer countries.

Chris T writes:

Some of the most consistently important life skills for everyone aren't taught or even mentioned in modern education:

-The importance of networking and how to do it. It remains a truism that who you know is more important than what you know when finding work.

-How to sell yourself. Critical in more than just job hunting.

Ignacio writes:

I thought the asterix next to the foreign language requirement was because your comment would refer to the fact that there is almost no value for an employee if the job-applicant got a B+ in a foreign language in high-school. In a work-setting, you need people who are fluent in teh foreign language(which would entail a A+ grade in high-school). Otherwise, they are not really considered to be able to speak it.

With regards to voice technology recognition software, I cannot say how soon it will be able to replace people who are bilingual. But if I had to bet, I think you are being more optimistic than I am.

Chris T writes:

With regards to voice technology recognition software, I cannot say how soon it will be able to replace people who are bilingual.

It probably won't replace them, but will certainly reduce the demand. A lot of day to day communication needs are pretty basic and translational technology would be well suited to it.

Alex Godofsky writes:

All else being equal, it would make sense to look for your keys in the brightest places first...

Eric Hosemann writes:

I think you've misunderstood Ravitch. The idea is to educate broadly-to prepare students for a wide variety of possible economic and social circumstances. Employers appreciate students who have shown they grasp the basics of a variety of disciplines, because having done so, they are more likely to fulfill each of your bullet points.

Bill Conerly writes:

When I was in high school (late 60s), the most reliable vocation seemed to be color TV repair; there was a shop on every corner.

Computer programming was appropriate only for geniuses, we thought.

I become more humble as a forecaster every time I think of that.

ChrisA writes:

"but it would be amazing if literature or history saw major job growth"

I am not so sure, as manufacturing became more and more automated there was a peak in manufacturing jobs and now even as manufacturing output continues to rise, total employment is falling in the sector. With increasing computer power services will eventually follow. So what will replace services? It could well be the creative arts sector. As people become wealthier, they definitely consume more arts and already the sector is already very profitable. I read somewhere that JK Rowling's Harry Potter franchise generates more annual revenue than Bahrain's GDP. Another example are the artists such as Jeff Koons and Damian Hirst. These artists employs hundreds of people and I bet most of these people have arts degrees.

Duane writes:

Bryan, have you ever read "Education's End" by Anthony Kronman? I would be interested to hear your thoughts on that book and its thesis that the value of a liberal education is in helping to find the meaning of life. I must confess (even though I received what is widely considered to be a more practical engineering education), I found merit in the book's argument.

Seth writes:

I put Ravitch in a special class of people who seem to have a good handle on the problems, but her solutions usually involve forcing her own preferences on others rather than letting others choose what's best for them.

tribsantos writes:

In "the myth of the rational voter" you call attention to a proposal by steven pinker in the blank slate that had also caught my eye when I read it there "(education policy should give priority to) provide students with the cognitive tools that are most important for grasping the modern world and that are most unlike the cognitive tools they are born with. (there would be) high priority to economics, evolutionary biology and probability and statistics in any high school or college curriculum". Does anybody know if anyone tried to isolate the effects on income, social behavior, voting of being taught these things (I know you studied the effects of learning economics, and they are relevant).

George X writes:

If I were teaching typical high-school kids, the best thing I could do for their cognitive development would be to make them nap for the first half-hour of class.


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