There is a very useful article in the Financial Times that talks about outgoing Chicago Mayor (and former Obama aide) Ram Emanuel’s attempts “to retool the community college system. Since becoming mayor in 2011, Mr Emanuel has demonstrated two things. First, there is a large pent-up demand for technical education among young Americans, particularly in depressed urban areas. Second, it does not have to be free to all … [because] … Mr Emanuel’s model is to make vocational education free to any high school student who achieves reasonable grades. Following the German model, employers are integrated closely with the curriculum. The aim is to offer them marketable skills … [thus far] … The results have been impressive. Students qualify for Chicago’s fully-funded Star Scholarship if they get a grade-point average of 3.0 or higher — roughly equivalent to a B grade. At just over 80 per cent since its launch in the autumn of 2015, the completion rate among Chicago “star scholars” from community college is roughly three times the national average …[because, again] … “People respond much better if they have skin in the game,” says Mr Emanuel … [and] … The impact of the reforms is not just being felt in the further education system. High school students, even from Chicago’s deeply troubled south side, can also pick up vocational credits while still in high school. Chicago’s so-called “dual credit dual enrolment” system, allows kids still in high school to amass certifications at community college.”“
The bigger problem to which the article alludes is that we, in North America, are failing to meet the needs of our children and of our communities because we have bastardized the education system in an effort to make everyone equal when, it is intuitively obvious (and the data supports the fact that) they are not.
We have, somehow, made a four year university degree the basic, or entry level standard for the middle class, and because the vast majority of our children, rich and poor alike, are not intellectually capable of becoming accountants, biologists, classicists, data analysts, electrical engineers and so on we had to create phoney degree programmes like gender and social justice studies. We end up, increasingly, in both Canada and the USA, importing our mathematicians, engineers, chemists and actuaries from China and India, but we still have a shortage of carpenters, draughtsmen, electricians, fire-fighters, heavy equipment operators, plumbers, police officers and telephone linemen. Not surprisingly many young men, especially, would like to have those jobs but they are directed, often by their families, towards “higher education,” because, as the Financial Times says, “In America, the community college suffers from the “soft bigotry of low expectations”, says Bridget Gainer, a senior executive at Aon, the Chicago-based insurance company … [because] … “Everyone is in favour of community college — but for other people’s children, not their own,” says Janice Jackson, head of Chicago Public Schools.“
It is, I suspect, something of a culture of higher expectations and even entitlements that began tp develop when what American journalist Tom Brokaw called the “greatest generation,” that demographic cohort which had survived the Great Depression, fought World War II and fathered the “baby boom” turned its attention to the future for its children and grandchildren and was convinced that they, the next generations should have an easier time than it, that greatest generation, did. It was apparent that an education, a good education, a quality, post secondary education was one key to a better life … and we have seen, in last week’s headlines, news about a bribery scandal in which some rich and celebrated people paid bribes and used other criminal means to guarantee access to some of America’s finest universities for their children.
There is, also, an argument raging, quietly, in the American academy led by e.g. Professor Jonathan Haidt, who is a social psychologist and Professor of Ethical Leadership at New York University’s Stern School of Business, who argues that there is a “new moral order” that has spread widely in some campuses and that threatens real education and our intellectual life. I have a lot of sympathy with Professor Haidt’s view that the fight for ‘social justice‘ is a real, clear and present danger to the telos of ‘truth‘ in scholarship and excellence in many fields.
I, broadly, agree with the notion that a better education produces a better life for almost anyone and that a sound education regime is vital for a prosperous, peaceful society, but I also agree with the Financial Times when it says that the loudest proponents of social justice in education, which often means ‘free’ education “are silent about the deepest problems in American education. Even if tuition were free, many Americans still do not want to go to college because other costs are steep and not everyone is cut out for four years of college. Many fail to complete high school because the sole purpose of doing so is to qualify for university.” I can remember, quite clearly, when I finished high school, almost 60 years ago, that many of my school-mates, mostly boys, had left after 10 or even after only eight years of education, being confident that they could have good lives working on their family farms, in the forests and mines, in factories and so on.
We were already at a turning point 60 years ago ~ I went back and counted my ‘grad‘ class ~ where young women were more likely than young men to finish high school, at all, and even more likely to complete the so called ‘academic‘ (university entrance) rather than ‘general‘ (vocational) programme. But that wasn’t surprising because a young man, at age 16, with a Grade 10 report card, could get a ‘job for life,’ with a defined benefit pension plan, at a major industrial plant and he could, when in his late 20s, get a mortgage to buy a modest home in a suburb, and a car, and, by the time he as in his 40s, also buy a cottage or a boat, too. In fact my classmates, we in the tail end of the so-called silent generation (1925-45) got what the greatest generation wanted for its kids.
I am persuaded that we, in North America, have lost sight of the aim of education … first, eduction, broadly, must include training, to help prepare young people for productive work along with the basics that produce literacy, numeracy and good social (citizenship) values. Second, education must be roughly equal for all; I am well aware that some children, often those in better off homes, have a significant head start because their parents provide an environment where learning is encouraged while other children grow up in neighbourhoods when education is not seen as having much value unless it leads to a career in athletics or pop culture, but beyond that schools need to be funded so that all children have adequate resources for learning … books, technology, field trips to museums, and so on.
I think primary education should be compulsory and the results should be tested against reasonable standards. The standards for primary education should be an ability to cope with the secondary school curriculum. The secondary schools should be where young people are streamed into academic vs vocational paths. The standards for the academic path should be set, independently of governments, by the universities and colleges, the standards for the vocational path should be set with the help of trade unions, community colleges and industry.
University programmes should be stripped down … many of the popular, targeted social programmes (gender and racial studies, for example) need to be thrown out and the liberal arts (including the the ideas of old ‘dead white men‘) needs to be strengthened.
Grading in secondary schools needs to be rigorous and immune to abuse; exams needs to be standardized, even internationally, and administered by an independent agency that answers to the universities, not to an elected board of education. Grading should, I expect, reflect the famous bell curve …
… access to university ought to be limited to those from about the mid point of curve and to the right. Those at the far right, maybe less than 10% but, perhaps, somewhat more than just 2%, should receive, regardless of financial need (benefits can always be taxed back from the parents), absolutely free education ~ tuition, books, fees, residency and meals (or a stipend) so that no excellent young person cannot afford university. The corollary is that no-one from the bottom 16% . should be allowed to enter the university, regardless of how much daddy may have donated to the library fund.
Similar rules should apply to the colleges and to apprenticeship programmes … those who have demonstrated their ability and willingness to work hard to achieve good results should be rewarded.
The community colleges need to be allowed to grow, to even compete with universities in some programmes … the line between technologist and professional should be a bit blurry, especially in field like business, commerce, computer sciences and even education, itself. On the other hand some professions, like the clergy, engineering, law and medicine, must be allowed to self regulate, including by setting qualifying (education) and ‘licensing‘ standards.
Education is not a social programme, it is, rather, more like the seams that bind the fabrics of society together and make us peaceful and prosperous … or not. Education must not be reserved for the rich or given, as a reward for past wrongs, to any group. Some people can and will benefit from higher education, many people need just enough of a good enough education to help them to be productive members of society.. There are a few people for whom no amount of education will do much good and others who will be studying and learning until they are in their 90s. The roles of our universities and colleges ought not to include creating NBA or NFL or even NHL players … but sports and athletics can be a wonderful adjunct to academics; there is a lot of merit in the old adage (Juvenal) “mens sana in corpore sano,” which means, roughly, that a healthy mind lives in a healthy body, but, as with so many things, it can be taken to ridiculous extremes.
Education is about building the sorts of people that will make our communities and our countries and our world better, in every way, for all of us.