We lip-service the value of education

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We’ve been talking about the importance of education since virtually the beginning of time. Is the idea waning, though?

Hopefully not, but it might be.

Let’s walk through the importance of education and its shifting narrative. This is a blog post. It’s meant to be somewhat brief, and there have been entire books written on the importance of education. By no means will this be that thorough. I’ll probably be a little bit all over the place because it’s a broad, important topic.

The importance of education, Step 1: Why is modern education system like this?

Most people think the education system is based on agriculture cycles. NPR has even reported it out like that. In reality, that’s not the full deal. Think about it logically: kids would be needed in the spring (harvest) and the fall (planting) more than the summer, but kids were in school in the fall/spring. The real reason is air conditioning. School buildings were hideous in the summer before that, and the wealthy in urban areas fled to second homes. It made the most sense to suspend school in the summer.

The approach to education at the K-12 level has been relatively similar for generations. It’s changed a bit, yes. New models have emerged (charters!) and whatnot. But by and large — this point can be argued, yes — education was set up around Industrial Age mentality. (If you want an article debunking it, here you go.) I was a teacher in the inner city from 2003 to 2005. That’s a small sample size, yes. But one thing I always used to tell my friends was about lines and sitting and organization. Schools love that stuff. But over time, that corporate model has shifted to “open floor plans” and “remote work” (granted not totally at scale), but we still want kids sitting in orderly rows. That always felt like an Industrial Age way of thinking to me. Might be naive.

Problem is: the basic life path has been changing for years. Education gotta keep up. But education moves slower than business, usually — and that’s an issue.

What about higher education within all this?

Higher education seemingly became an arms race. It feels like we apply market principles there — “High-growth institutions!” — and that might be a flop.

Another small sample size one: took business school classes at University of Minnesota from 2012 to 2014. So many classes taught 1991 marketing funnels that didn’t focus on digital/social and used 1987 performance metrics. I always thought it was funny that some guy would get a MBA, enter a company at $150,000, and potentially not know anything about business development or customer acquisition in a modern context. Seems like kind of a flaw. Importance of education, yea?

The importance of education and The Knowledge Economy

Real talk on this deal: we supposedly live in a Knowledge Economy now, yes? Although it often feels as if companies miss the boat on that. Most companies are still set up around the withholding of information at the top levels. Even though we know from research that training and developing employees is important, most companies kick that to HR or third-party firms and barely seem to care.

We have had some research recently that career training is becoming more important for some orgs(good!), and now we have some new stuff from UVA:

As careers become more episodic, the traditional professional development metrics may also need to be retooled, with university or college training taking place throughout one’s life.

That’s quote 1. Quote 2 is even more dramatic:

“We need a new paradigm and social contract for work now,” Lu said. “The law and norms we have right now were for a different time”

Believe all that. The importance of education would seem to be pretty relevant.

One quick note on vocational training

You’ve heard this in recent “importance of education” discussions or “future of education” discussions. The concept is that we need more vocational training, especially at the high school level. I wrote a post about “Shiny Object Syndrome” once and linked this interview with LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner. He runs a site that probably generates most of its revenue from white-collar job chasers, and he’s even saying we need more vocational training. “The case for vocational education” articles are everywhere these days, and most will tell you how much a welder or plumber can/will make. It’s almost all true.

OK, so let’s hit some realities on the importance of education

Here’s a few I’ve come to believe:

Four-year colleges: This is largely bullshit. Going to a “good school” and getting your social sciences degree might set you up as kind of a broad educational elite, but it doesn’t necessarily reflect the current economic landscape of jobs. (And yes, you can argue the purpose of college isn’t to align with employment.) I think the four-year college still exists because parents want to say at cocktail parties: “Well, Tommy is off to New Haven in the fall…”

The growth mindset: This is a significant problem around the importance of education. In America at least, the only things of “importance” are what some middle-aged white guys deem “high-growth opportunities.” Education isn’t that. So just like execs speak about “mission and vision” and then never do anything on it, most discussion of education is pie-in-the-sky buzzwords. The people doing the real work are usually teachers, non-profit admins, and principals, most of whom make about $45,000/year (some higher) and are ignored by the all about the Benjamins ecosystem we live within.

The middle class argument: Education has long been thought of as a way to pull people up — lower class to middle, middle class to upper, etc. Obviously marriage plays into this, and there’s a million stats I could toss you there. I won’t. But because of the problems above, and because the 1% owns more than the bottom 50%, I’m not really sure education is helping the middle class much anymore. The “Old Boys Network” developed in higher education definitely helps, yes. Fraternities might be more important than majors in some ways. But I’m not sure that speaks to “the importance of education” in the right ways.

So does the importance of education still exist?

Of course. Well, you’d hope.

I think the place we’ve hit is the same place we hit in corporations, as I mentioned above. Execs love to talk about “vision” and “purpose,”and then spend all day gasping over financial metrics. (That’s not quite “purpose,” Mr. Senior Leader.)

It feels the same with education. We love to mention it in speeches. “Won’t someone think of the children?” Etc, etc. But because it’s an area that can’t deliver 1000x returns to the same 88 white guys who consistently make money anyway, it feels like we don’t care about it writ large. We just hope our own family’s targets will be hit and that Yale psychology degree will somehow lead to a job at Bain.

With everything changing as fast as it is, doesn’t it feel like we need a broader discussion on the importance of education and how that relates to developing people?

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