Sunday, June 3, 2012

Stopped clock right this time: Stronger vocational education makes more sense than college for all |

Robert Samuelson is usually pretty bad, hovering down in George Will territory for vacuousness.  However, like a stopped clock that is right twice a day, he gets it right now and then.  The bursting of the higher ed bubble is one such moment, as people all over America are realizing that higher ed is not the driver of our well-being but an artifact made possible by the well-being that was powered by, mainly, less educated people having access to the amazing wealth provided by cheap energy.

Now that the cheap energy is a thing of the past, we can crank out all the degrees we like and we still won't bring back the growth economy.  The cargo cults of the South Sea Islands famously confused cause and effect, thinking that the Allied troops that brought all the cargo to the islanders could be lured back by thatch control towers that mimicked the ones that the troops had created when the war was on.  That's how most people think about education --- we rode a century-long oil boom to unimaginable prosperity and, in its wake, sent a lot of people into "higher ed" and gave out a lot of degrees.  But it wasn't the degrees that did it, and any attempt to keep the prosperity by continuing to overproduce people with degrees is going to send even more wealth into the black hole of nonproductive investment.

Not that we don't need educated people, badly.  But what we need is a serious upgrade in our understanding of what it means to be educated, and mainly for a revolution in our concept of education for citizenship.  The dominant paradigm in schools today is producing people capable of continuing on into higher ed, at great cost, for no obvious reason.  That is already failing, as the debt tsunami is taking that outmoded model out to sea.

Anyone interested in making a real, meaningful contribution to Salem's future should think about starting a charter school focused on giving young people the means and methods of educating themselves for the future.  Call it what you like, but the curriculum would be long on giving kids the analytical skills to understand what a gigantic ticking time bomb we've left in their beds, and the practical skills to cope with the effects of that, and the community building skills to nurture themselves as agents of their own destiny in a much more difficult world.  Done right, you'd combine the best of homeschooling with the best of cooperative education and apprenticeships and create some very formidable people.