Monday, October 06, 2014

Student Employability and The Educators' Dilemma

There is a touch of surreal in the discussion about Education-for-Employment. Most educators object that education should 'merely' be about employment, and everyone else blame them for being insensitive: They point out that college costs are soaring and with mounting debts, the students can't but think of economic returns when going to college. However, no one is seriously saying that education shouldn't be about employment, but rather that it should not just be about employment. Yet, the debate rages on.

For some, the education-for-employment conversation is ultimately informed by Margaret Thatcher's 'profound' insight that 'there is no such thing as society'. Once one accepts the proposition, everything else falls in place: It provides a clear framework within which the 'superstar' economies can be built (where a few information elites take all the rewards), allowing, for the rest of us, lives of debt without redemption. 

The educators' point that the education should be about 'living' and 'being an active citizen', should be all about resisting this grand design. However, they are making the case rather poorly. Instead of the talk of 'hope' and 'human future', much of their talk have been about the professional identity of the educators. A profession is a profession, as Louis Menand will put it, when its practitioners are accountable only to themselves, and not subject to the diktat of others. Putting employment as the primary goal and context of education may make the educational objectives secondary to the employers' game plans, and as a consequence, may lead to 'de-professionalisation' of the academia. 

However, while this is a valid concern for the academia, professions come under threat when they fail to justify the social benefits of their privileges. The workmen's guilds failed to justify themselves in the face of industrial revolution, and therefore, disappeared. On the other hand, the complexity of modern medicine solidified the medical profession, as it demonstrated its usefulness in applying and advancing medical knowledge. The professoriate, obsessed with its own professional dignity, increasingly look marginalised like the guilds, and excluded from the social debate about employability.

It is a tragedy that the educators engage in the debate about education-for-employment with the intent to defend their professional privilege rather than the other big issue on the table: That such vocationalism is self-defeating and pointless. We are at a breakpoint as far as the vocations are concerned, and the skills the students need by definition are dependent on their ability to go beyond the status quo. At the heart of the argument that one must accept the current realities and build an education system suitable for the perennially indebted man (or woman), one that is focused solely on finding and keeping an employment, remains this contradiction that accepting the status quo can not be enough because the world around us is changing. The two strands of argument - that we must farm out our thinking to the information elites and that we must be able to think for ourselves - are exactly what they seem to be, contradictory!

The Educators' Dilemma is thus: Should we be arguing for status quo and for leaving the profession on its own devices, or should we argue for the change and that a good education can help us challenge the assumptions and ensure that the change is for better? The latter case is stronger, and allows the educators to reclaim the intellectual leadership of the changing society, but we tend to fall back on the lazy charm of professional security. The case for professional security is already lost, I shall argue, as the founding assumptions of the academic profession rested on a vision of the state that has been effectively abandoned, for good or for worse, and a new framework, based on broader social changes and complexity of knowledge, would be needed to justify what education does.

The case is complex, but it can be made: We need more than just vocational pretensions to offer a good education. We may say employers know, but they only entertain a micro perspective of the world, informed by their own self-contained needs. And, the limits of these needs are self-evident within the employers' own frameworks. They may make the case for certain skills, but evidently they are only too aware that these skills by themselves are not enough. For example, they may talk about problem solving, but problem finding is increasingly becoming a big problem, and vocationalism has no clear answer to this. Communication skills are often cited, but emphasis on articulation may create other issues, such as respect and toleration, which may affect another sought after attribute: Collaboration. And, even though collaboration is loved among everyone, the template for collaboration may not be same for everyone. So, how does one get laser sharp focus on problem solving with the serendipitous approach to problem finding, effective communication along with respect and tolerance, collaboration with space for the diverse, abundant self-confidence along with the sensitivity and quick learning? The debate, once thus framed, should make the case for a good education.

Indeed, this may justify the educators' plea to be left alone, but only if the case is made in terms of change and not against it. Education is about hope and education is about judgement. The direction of change today, which leaves a lot of losers for a few winners, make education more relevant and not less. The education profession, which has perhaps lost its sense of purpose in the bureaucratic privileges granted by state that used to be, is losing its relevance by trying to stand outside the debate of broader social change. Yet, it is its historic opportunity: To make the case for a different future, one where many can live lives of participation and fulfillment rather than becoming productive assets in the plans of the few; to create the possibilities beyond the current gilded age, where knowledge helps us to resist rather than consume, and makes us free, rather than indebted; and to imagine a future of cooperation and coexistence, rather than a hierarchical system of exploitation that seems to be falling apart violently. It is educators' responsibility to change the debate, but that won't come without a reexamination of its own pretensions first.

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