What’s a School For?
The future of education, the future of work, and why these shouldn’t inform each other.
By Dr W.D. Sharkey
This article will discuss the role of education as it is currently viewed and why this current understanding is both undesirable and harmful. I will then propose how education ought to be understood, arguing that an approach that focusses on the development of agency is preferable to an approach that focusses on employability. I hope to demonstrate the first, and least controversial, aim by making recourse to government documents, speeches given by various education secretaries, and intuition mongering from the various pupils I have had the fortune (often good) to teach. I will then challenge, on two fronts, the view that education ought to be concerned with ensuring those who undertake this process are able to service labour-needs. Firstly, I will argue that education cannot satisfy this condition in virtue of the rapidly changing skills required by an increasingly dynamic, hostile, and unpredictable labour-market. Secondly, I will argue that even if education could satisfy this condition, it shouldn’t attempt to do so. The concern is that in virtue of education’s perception-forming effect, an agents’ weighing of worth (or value, broadly construed) along instrumental lines (i.e. a thing is of value if and only if it is of service to businesses, employers, markets, or capitalism generally) will lead to impoverished agents qua valuers.
These concerns can be distilled into two distinct categories of harm:
1) Young people cannot be prepared for work, when the nature of this work is in a state of radical change. Indeed, it’s not obvious what work will look like (given automation and the possibility of a reduced working week) in the near future.
2) Young people will perceive themselves as, and measure their worth by, instrument. This self-perception, and perception of how to value people, frustrates their understanding of what their conception of a ‘good life’ looks like.
After the critical, that is, negative, aspect of the article is expressed, I will suggest a few ways we can ameliorate the concerns raised.
What has education been for?
It will be uncontroversial to state that the current language around education policy has been oriented towards employment. Schools and universities are considered successful to the degree they enable those who pass through their doors to go on and find a job. This success condition is seemingly a constitutive feature of education policy and finds its way, unchallenged, into speeches given by every education secretary in living memory, initially as politically attuned rhetoric:
“We should judge our success not just on how young people do in school, university or college, but how well their education prepares them for work, and how adults in the workforce have opportunities to progress.”
(Department for Education and Justine Greening MP, 2017, italics added)
then reaffirmed as policy:
“The Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) publishes performance indicators (PIs) for higher education in 3 batches each year, on behalf of the 4 UK funding bodies. […]”
These refer to:
– retention of higher education students (students who do not progress to the second year of their courses)
– employment outcomes of leavers
(Department for Education and HESA, 2018, italics added)
Almost every policy published in recent years has included some proviso about the need for young people to cultivate skills that are of value to employers. Most recently, this has taken on the language of ‘character’, presumably to begin the move of tying notions of a ‘moral’ education to discussions around social economics (an agent is good to the degree they are of benefit to the wider economy):
“The DfE understands character education to include any activities that aim to develop desirable character traits or attributes in children and young people. The DfE believe that such desirable character traits:
– Can support improved academic attainment;
– Are valued by employers; and
– Can enable children to make a positive contribution to British society”
(NatSen Social Research & The National Children’s Bureau Research and Policy Team, 2017, italics added)
These intuitions around what an education is, do not find themselves confined to those who are in control of policy. A cursory conversation with some secondary school pupils (Year 7 – Year 9) reveal that they, too, share these base suppositions about the role of education. When asked the question ‘what is school for?’ – 203 out of 206 pupils agreed that they came to school so they would be able to get a job.
A fortiori, informal conversations with various members of my school’s Senior Leadership Team (SLT) frequently express an intuited presupposition that their job is to ensure that the school is taking demonstrable measures to satisfy the government’s success condition. That is, the school is trying to promote the pupils employability. The school has been told to perceive itself as successful to the degree our pupils are employable upon leaving, and now this perception has become the very presupposition of the school management. These views find similar expression in parents who, understandably, want to ensure their children are adequately prepared to find better employment than they themselves had access to.
Two questions immediately emerge from this:
1. If schools are solely directed towards the benefit of business to such a degree that their success is measured in such terms, why is the state responsible for funding education, especially when this education has now taken the form of ‘vocational training’? Which is to say, why are businesses not funding schools directly?
2. If we are now looking forward to the reality of a disrupted and deteriorating labour market, what are our schools preparing pupils for?
The first question will not be given any sort of separate or sustained treatment. Nor will I explicitly discuss the possibility of post-work scenarios (related to, but distinct from, point 2.) – Keynes’ vision of a 15hr working week, and the reasons this has not come about, have been given far better treatments than I could manage (see Keynes, Foucault, and the Disciplinary Complex (Guizzo & Stronge, 2018) as an exemplar of such a treatment).
The Future of Work
This section will examine the following argument:
1) We harm our young people by denying them an education.
2) Education is concerned only with cultivating a skillset valued by employers.
3) We cannot offer pupils an education that employers of the (near) future will value.
4) We cannot but harm our young people.
Premise 1. is our starting assumption and – taking this as fairly uncontroversial – I will not offer an argument for it here. Premise 2. is an evaluative statement of our current understanding (as expressed by pupils and government policy). Premise 3. is a descriptive statement which I hope to qualify. Our conclusion (4.) is reached, given the truth of 1-3. If I can show premise 3. is correct, and that this is in tension with 2., I hope to show that premise 2. is the underlying assumption that is causing the harm mentioned in 4.
‘We cannot offer pupils an education that employers of the (near) future will value.’
My argument for the above statement will centre around the claim that the rapidly changing nature of work makes it almost impossible to predict, and provide policy for, what sort of skills need to service it. Two, skills-based, concerns are raised. Firstly, job polarization (a hollowing out of middle-quality jobs). Secondly, overskilling (a dramatic increase in the graduate workforce, which has led to ‘credentialism’ in the labour market).
Job polarization is when job quality (partially defined by the median wage) tends towards two poles (one pole being ‘high quality’, the other being ‘low quality’). Where the distribution of job quality used to benefit from a spread range (top, middle, bottom), economists have observed an increasing, and (importantly) rapidly increasing, ‘hollowing out’ of middle-quality jobs, leaving only high and low quality jobs available for the workforce. Goos and Manning (Goos & Manning, 2007) examine increasing levels of job polarization in the U.K. since 1975, and provide evidence for the claim (following Autor, Levy, Murnane (Autor, et al., 2003) )that the ‘routinization’ of labour – specifically, labour that was once done by skilled workers capable of high-precision work (bookkeepers, for example) – has had an obliterating effect on middle-quality jobs (most obviously caused by the adoption of technology, which is extremely suited to routine, algorithmic, rule-based work). Workers are, instead, offered only the choice of ‘lousy’ (low-quality) or ‘lovely’ (high-quality) jobs.
Upon leaving tertiary education, graduates now scramble for the ‘lovely’ jobs. This is, of course, zero-sum (a person gains at the expense of another) and we are now noticing increasing underemployment – most frequently in virtue of the, now notorious, zero-hour contracts, and the rise of gig-economy based jobs – amongst graduates.
An obvious problem with graduate saturation in the job market is the resultant ‘credentialism’ that emerges. Employers are now asking for graduate-level credentials (hence, ‘credentialism’) to fill roles that – ultimately – do not require this level of education to perform competently. This is having an enormous detrimental effect: making low-skilled, low-paid, casual, temporary, or gig-based work the preserve of those with a degree (or higher), means those who would normally be reliant on these job opportunities (i.e. non-graduates) are being passed-over without consideration. Non-graduates have as much to offer these employers (given that graduates don’t have a relevant skillset), but are deemed to be less attractive prospects given assumptions related to cultural-capital accumulation. Interestingly, this increase in educational attainment required by employers has not led to an increase in wages for those doing these jobs.
Job polarization has created a compound negative effect. Firstly, graduates are taking jobs not relevant to the subjects they studied at university, often for less money than they were expecting. The skills they have spent years (and, indeed, money) developing are now – if we are to assume the terms of the education policy-narrative – completely mismatched and redundant. Research has found that over 50% of graduates go into jobs that do not require a degree. One reporter in The Guardian makes the claim that pursuing a tertiary education has, therefore, been an utter waste of time for these graduates:
“Britain’s failure to create sufficient high-skilled jobs for its rising proportion of graduates means the money invested in education is being squandered, while young people are left crippled by student debts[…]”
The language around this problem is telling. ‘Money invested in education’, ‘failure to create high-skilled jobs’, and ‘squandered’ – all presuppose that the purpose of education is to gain employment. If you are only obtaining a lousy job, then you have wasted your money – and your time – by going to university. You have bought a defective product, a product that did not perform the function (i.e. access to a ‘lovely’ job) you bought it do. CIPD Chief Executive, Peter Cheese, is quoted in The Guardian saying:
“Graduates are increasingly finding themselves in roles which don’t meet their career expectations, while they also find themselves saddled with high levels of debt. This ‘graduatization’ of the labour market also has negative consequences for non-graduates, who find themselves being overlooked for jobs just because they have not got a degree, even if a degree is not needed to do the job.”
“Finally, this situation is also bad for employers and the economy as this type of qualification and skills mismatch is associated with lower levels of employee engagement and loyalty, and will undermine attempts to boost productivity.”
(The Guardian, 2016)
So, why are graduates taking these jobs in the first place? The answer is related to the problem education policy-makers have… the sort of jobs available are changing in nature, and changing too quickly to make prudential judgments on. There has been a long and steady decline of middle-quality job availability. What we have seen, instead, is a hollowing-out and polarizing process. Very few highly paid jobs, requiring an increasingly specialized skillset, are being created, however, there are is an abundance of increasingly mundane, poorly paid (but non-routine and less automatable) jobs becoming available. The sort of middle-income jobs that used to be the preserve of graduates leaving Russell Group universities with solid 2:1 degrees are vanishing, forcing graduates to take jobs an education is simply not required for. This isn’t simply a case of over-qualification (although it is often that), it’s a case of irrelevant education.
The job market is readjusting too quickly, too rapidly, and moving in a direction that (formal) education simply isn’t in a position to service. Providing our young people with skills required to be successful in the job market – and using this as our success condition – is simply something that education is not for.
Peripheral to this concern is the real prospect of the full-automation of labour. The problem of job polarization is only likely to worsen with automation beginning to take root within the ‘lousy’ job sector. The low-skilled jobs graduates have taken from non-graduates are increasingly falling to rapidly developing innovations in technology, and even graduates cannot – even in principle – satisfy the desirability of robots (which can work without break, without the possibility of unforeseen sick days, without pay, without irregularity in output, without workplace disputes, and inter-employee tensions including bullying, and sexual-harassment lawsuits).
A recent report produced by the World Economics Forum, citing research produced by the McKinsey Global Institute, claims “robots could replace 800 million jobs by 2030” (World Economic Forum, 2018). Any job that involves repetitive operations are most clearly under threat, while the genuine prospect of ‘machine learning’, and machine problem-solving (via networked information sharing between robots) is making it unclear which jobs – including those that are not based on quasi-algorithmic behaviours – will resist automation. We cannot offer pupils an education that employers of the (near) future will value, because it is not obvious what jobs will resist full-automation the longest, and it is definitely not obvious if employers of the near future will value non-robot workers at all.
If the role of education is provide people with the means to gain employment, and if there are no such means available, then it appears to follow (given the above argument), that we have no real reason to educate our young people. Our assumed teleology of education, viz. ‘employment’, cannot be met under the current conditions of the New Industrial Revolution.
We have two good reasons to re-evaluate education’s function. The first is that our second premise cannot obtain in virtue of the considerations discussed in the previous section. The second reason to re-evaluate education’s function is to assess what kind of agent is produced by putting them through a formative, and value-formative, process that encourages them to think of subjects of enquiry along instrumental lines: ‘Physics is worth studying if, and only if, the study of physics (and the resultant qualification) is more likely to help me get a job than studying another subject in its place.’
And this is the model of thought expressed by many of the pupils I teach. Further, this is a model of thought actively encouraged since the adoption of the new ‘silo’ (aka ‘bucket’) system brought in to ‘weigh’ GCSEs in England and Wales.
Pupils habituate and, intuit, the thought that x is valuable to learn only if it improves one’s job prospects. Everything else is – literally – a waste of time and therefore ‘pointless’ (where this is considered a pejorative term). If all goods are qualified by ‘employability’, and no good is considered such in itself, this is nothing other than total and universal philistinism. Education, as it is currently structured, habituates and encourages value monopoly (where the value is ‘employability’) and, as such, generates a workplace populated by agents with an impoverished sense of value, and consequently an impoverished sense of self.
A Different Model Of Education
I want to begin by saying that the model of education I wish to propose is valuable in itself – that is, it’s value is not parasitic on the possibility (or inevitability) of full automation. As such, this model of thinking about education should be implemented regardless of one’s vision of the future.
In this section I wish to propose a model of education that draws on certain Aristotelian/Hegelian approaches to claim that education, rather than being concerned with cultivating ‘workers’, should instead be oriented around cultivating ‘agents’ or ‘people’. This education-type, I will argue, should furnish pupils with a sense of what it is to be a person, how to decide between the various projects one can participate in in virtue of this person-ality, and give pupils the skills necessary to undertake a (perhaps rudimentary) engagement with formative projects. Being able to form a motivating conception of ‘the good’, and understanding the processes one has to undertake to participate in one’s preferred conception of ‘a good life’ (whatever such a life looks like for the agent who esteems it), ought to be facilitated by an education. Indeed, I want to argue that education should be organised around developing these skills.
I will animate my argument by making recourse to the meta-ethical view ‘Constitutivism’. Hegelian constitutivism (my preferred variant) claims that to be a person is to be a normative type. This view argues that each action has a constitutive feature that can be differentially realised. For Hegel, this feature is ‘freedom’. To be a ‘person’ is to be ‘free’ (a person isn’t a person if they are not free). Good agents are those who express and realise their (inherent) freedom, bad agents are those who fail to express, or realise, their freedom sufficiently well. Hegel’s argument here rests on views about the substantial structure of agency that I have argued for elsewhere, and I will take it as given that this view is granted (for the sake of argument).
Intuitively, we can only express ourselves in the world if we have developed a skill-set of sorts. The more skilled we are, the more clearly we are able to express ourselves. I can convey meaning using sentences. The better command of the language I have, and the more effective a communicator I am, the more closely I can express my meaning (by drawing on a larger pool of words, by understanding my listener etc). Those with artistic skills are more able to express, in precise ways, clear internal content. They are better able to externalise (in the world), what was hitherto internal (in the mind).
We can use these skills in a variety of ways. Firstly, we can use our skills to produce goods we need for our subsistence and (perhaps) luxury. Given that we need others to also have developed a skill-set in order to produce the things that we ourselves cannot produce, we might have a normative reason to not only seek out an education for ourselves, we will also have a (prudential) normative reason to ensure that there is access to education for all. Secondly, we can use our skills to express ourselves to our friends, colleagues and wider communities. To be an agent is to be free, and a large part of this freedom is going to be determined by how well an agent can express themselves in the world. Being able to express yourself, and having ‘yourself’ recognised by someone you respect (broadly speaking) are both vital presuppositions for our conception of a free agent. Education teaches us how to express, and, if done well, education also teaches us how to recognise the inalienable agency of an ‘other’. If I recognise a person (in the full sense) when I see one, and don’t mistake them for something simply person-shaped (as, for example, what happened in situations of slavery), I might treat them as something other than a mere object.
Thus, education is a good in itself in that it is conducive to agency and, therefore, freedom. It plays a significant part in facilitating agential flourishing through cultivating patterns of reciprocal recognition. If I am told I play chess well by a person whose game is weak and under-developed, I might not take this person’s praise seriously. If I am told I play chess well by Garry Kasparov (or some such), I will do well to not blush with pride. Similarly, my dignity, and my recognition of my own dignity, is supported if it is recognised by an ‘other’ who I also recognise as having dignity. Indeed, my dignity is parasitic on this recognition and reciprocal recognition between equals is vital. If I recognise as persons those in the LGBTQ+ community, the BAME community, the disabled community (etc), via their expressions of agency (without these expressions they remain only shapes in the world), I am more likely to receive satisfaction when I am recognised in turn. Education has, Hegel claims, ‘infinite value’ for exactly this reason. It will be of infinite value to those who have it, and to others also – it helps us to see the humanity of all, not only those who look like us and believe the things we do:
“A human being counts as such because he is a human being, not because he is a Jew, Catholic, Protestant, German, Italian, etc. This consciousness, which is the aim of thought, is of infinite importance […]”
In short, education is a process that teaches us what it is to be a person, and how to engage in the project of becoming a person. Education does not make ‘subjects’ (in the sense of fashioning a finished thing), it makes ‘projects’. It cultivates – for those who participate in it – a robust conception of ‘the good’, and enables us to recognise the various ways we can express our self-interpretation. Further, it teaches us the form of personality so that we can recognise it when we see it. If we are able to recognise persons, and understand what is entailed by this recognition, we shall have a developed sense of how to behave towards, that is, how to treat, others, and how we, ourselves, can expect to be treated.
What This Means For Policy
So, what subjects should our young people learn in schools? Fortunately, the burden of answering this question does not befall the author of this article. This article is meta-educational. Rather, the concrete conclusion arising from the prior argument centres around the claim that the way in which we weigh subjects must be re-valued alongside the intentionality behind subject choice preferences. I also want to restate the importance of de-tethering narratives around values and employment. This de-tethering will habituate more value pluralism in a way that defeats the worries around philistinism. Goods other than (but, perhaps including – if we are to accept a weaker view of this claim) ‘employability’ will be esteemed. Altering the language around education seems trivial, that is until we realise how totally, and universally, we have adopted the unitary value inherent to servicing-capitalism.
Two concrete proposals which could be put forth, and perhaps considered by policy makers, might – in the first instance – include:
1) Removing (not just reducing) all tuition fees. Making education adopt a commodity form confuses ‘users’ of higher education about the nature of thing they’re participating in. De-commodifying education will be a good starting point for challenging narratives that aligns ‘education’ with ‘product’. Further, education is a right, not a privilege, or something you should only participate in if you have the money to do so (or are prepared to take-on an enormous debt – usually framed as a gamble on one’s future). It’s not obvious what you’re buying when you buy education (where education is taken to be conducive to one’s character development in itself). Indeed, even taking the current policy-narrative, making a person buy their own employability seems perverse.
2) Re-invigorating Further Education. Ensuring the material conditions are present for allowing agents to develop new competencies and, therefore, express their person-ality in new ways will be paramount. Quasi-informal courses, where one might pick up a language, learn to build a car, learn various crafts, etc, have no obvious teleology outside of ‘I found x interesting and wanted to know more about it’. People value this education because it helps them participate in a life they consider worthwhile.
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