Richard Kirsch has an interesting article ("Can Schools Fix Our Economy?") on Salon today about the importance of educating people for the workforce, and how education will not alone get us where we need to be.
We all know that college graduates have a better shot at successful employment than non-graduates, that kids with high-school diplomas have a better chance than kids who dropout, and that dropouts are essentially excluded from the American Dream. Take that as a given.
But is preparation for the job market the real reason we educate kids?
I don't think so.
First, we don't do a very good job of predicting what jobs are going to be out there. The biggest department in my high school was secretarial practice; seen many secretaries lately? Sure, a lot of the skills they learned have undoubtedly been transferred to new applications, but the population of secretaries has been sharply reduced over the last couple of decades. Mostly, I suppose, because one of my fraternity brothers was right when he said everyone would eventually have their own computers at both office and home, though we laughed at him for such a ridiculous suggestion. Are we doing any better at predicting employment opportunities decades down the road now, than they did in the '70s and '80s?
Second, very few teenagers are prepared for full-scale job training. They're figuring out who they are, trying on the various masks we all wear in different places, and picking their way through the hormonal minefield. It's too early to concentrate on a single thing, and most of them are relatively insulated from the real-world factors of rent, bills and kids.
Third, and in the longer term, far more important, public education isn't about jobs and income -- it's about having an educated public. If we don't even know what jobs kids will need to do, then we have to give them the very basic skills that will serve them across the board -- reading well to acquire information; communicating effectively both orally and in writing (and knowing to scoff gently when anyone uses "verbally" for "orally"); and, enjoying the process of learning, whether it's for intellectual or vocational purposes, or just for enjoyment.
America's Founding Fathers recognized the importance of public education, and appropriated land and money for it as early as the Northwest Ordinance of 1789. Alexis de Tocqueville observed how Americans believed their education, whether it came from school or hard work on their own, made them the equal of any fellow citizen, and America the equal of any foreign land.
Life is more complicated now than in 1789 or the 1830s, and every issue facing us has well-funded ideological champions trying to persuade/convince/snooker us into supporting their positions. From the Birther controversy to where we should look for our nation's enemies, from health care to the budget deficit, smart and educated beats dumb and ignorant every time.
That's why we educate our kids. Sure, we want them to have jobs, and the sooner they're trained for them, the better. But we also need an educated citizenry -- to create the new jobs, raise the next generation, and protect the Republic -- and that's why we have public education. Let's not lose sight of that.