In the Spring 2019 issue of Colloquy, I wrote about the business of education from the perspective of the university and college. In this issue, I want to explore education from the perspective of society as a whole. What do we need from our educational system? Examining this question provides a deeper insight into higher education today.
We live in a highly bureaucratic and technical world that requires highly trained technicians. We need managers, insurance adjusters, accountants, programmers, and medical professionals, just to name a few. Without these technicians and bureaucrats, maintaining the level of organization necessary for the smooth operation of the economy would be impossible.
Furthermore, our economy is inextricably bound to technological innovation. The competitive struggle for resources that used to manifest as military conflict between kings and lords is now played out between states and corporations as a struggle for advanced technology. A highly competent and scientifically trained workforce is an absolute necessity in such a milieu. Creative scientists and researchers lead to new products and greater efficiency—hence the emphasis on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) disciplines.
Given these needs, society now sees a primary function of its educational system to be the training of human capital to serve the technical society. How can a sufficiently prepared workforce be maintained? Our educational system has responded by creating a sophisticated system of credentialing that depends on examinations of expertise. Credentials—whether they be degrees, “bar exams,” or other certificates—regulate the competency of technicians. The educational system also regulates the supply of technicians in order to keep salary levels high. The most obvious example of this is the American Medical Association (AMA), which carefully controls the supply of physicians through medical school numbers.1
A second important function of the educational system is to maintain the cultural myths associated with progress and economic efficiency. The labor force needs to be convinced not only that the path to success passes through the college degree but that success is defined in accordance with economic well-being. While many other forces also maintain these myths, the educational system certainly plays a starring role.
The net result is an educational system destructive to mankind. Human beings are corralled into an increasingly alienating society for the sake of efficiency. Work loses its meaning since the worker is disconnected from any beneficial result of his labor. Communities and thoughtful reflection are replaced by entertainment and money-making. Ultimately, the educational system serves the social and economic system rather than the students who attend.
Our system of higher education arose from a tradition reflecting very different societal values from those of today, a tradition that tried to foster mature and independent individuals through the study of the best of Western thought. Now, however, traditional education and the values that fostered it are colliding with our technological world and its overwhelming social forces, and traditional education is losing. This collision is seen clearly in the many pronouncements of the “uselessness of the liberal arts.” More generally, educational offerings are measured against the stick of practical economic benefit. We are not taught to write so that we can think well; we are taught to write so that we can prepare a good report.
Given the enormous inertia in our technological and economic society, higher education, for the majority, will no doubt fully transform into a credentialing process over time. What we must consider, however, is whether what is gained outweighs what is lost.
1 Shikha, Dalmia. “The Evil-Mongering of The American Medical Association.” Forbes.com. https://www.forbes.com/2009/08/25/american-medical-association-opinions-columnists-shikha-dalmia.html#5ace538542f2. (Accessed July 15, 2019.)
This article first appeared in the Summer 2019 issue of Colloquy, Gutenberg College’s free quarterly newsletter. Subscribe here.