What is the Role of Education in a “Jobless Future”?
If we are indeed approaching a jobless future, then our institutions of education must accommodate: schooling must be rethought to prepare people to live fulfilling and productive lives outside of paid employment.
This is the real lesson to take away from a recent blog post by Marc Tucker, president of the National Center on Education and the Economy, in which he imagines the role of education in a future society — or a not-so-future society — in which machines have assumed most of the jobs, and a universal basic income provides a modicum of security to keep displaced workers off the streets.
Tucker imagines the techno-utopian vision of the future made popular by the basic income advocates of Silicon Valley (he cites Y Combinator’s Sam Altman and Matt Krisloff, along with Union Square Ventures’ Albert Wenger) and raises what is, to be sure, an important question: “What should those of us in the education community make of all this?”
It is worth quoting Tucker’s own reply at length, as it falls widely off the mark — and, in doing so, reveals a need for basic income proponents to be clearer, and more emphatic, about the role that education could play in a future society with fewer jobs and no need to work for living:
Consider what the educator might have to do if this vision of automated life comes to pass. We would be sorting students into two bins, one bin for the few masters of the universe who get the great jobs, create the future and amass enough money to make sure that it is their children who succeed them and not the children of the others who are not as fortunate as they to be in the driver’s seat when the ball got rolling. And then there will be the bin for the others, who really do not need all those wonderful skills that the masters of the universe need, because they will not need to earn a living and will not have an opportunity to gain the dignity that comes with paid work.
And how will we decide which bin to put each child into? We could do it on “merit,” but, given the overwhelming advantages enjoyed by the master class, we might just as well tell them that their children will automatically be assigned to an education designed to prepare them for the jobs their parents have.
In limning this dystopian vision, it seems that Tucker continues to cling to the very presupposition that must be rejected — that the main role of education is to prepare students for careers in paid employment.
Instead, in a society with mass automation and universal basic income, educational institutions could and should foster (gasp) learning, rather than merely existing to provide students with the credentials necessary to receive a job. Schools could return to a greater emphasis on the liberal arts — engendering students’ thirst for knowledge for its own sake — and even the arts proper. More classes could introduce service learning components, encouraging students to take an avid interest in helping to improve their communities. And, yes, schools could continue to include substantial components in STEM: many students display a nascent interest in designing new inventions, learning about modern technologies, or writing their own computer code, for instance, that emerges long before they begin to worry about what job they would need to afford a nice house in the suburbs. A school that fails to motivate students to acquire and produce knowledge, except insofar as they come to believe it necessary to obtain a well-paying job, is a school that has failed in its most fundamental purpose. However, in order to implement these changes, schools may have to hire the services of specialised Education Solicitors for a much smoother legal process.
And we can, of course, cast aside the nonsense about sorting students into bins: all students deserve education in the sciences, humanities, and arts — all students deserve a chance to make valuable contributions to culture, society, and their local communities — irrespective of their eventual job prospects, all the more so when students will be liberated to pursue a multitude of projects beyond the confines of paid employment.
If Tucker’s point is that such education would be economically useless and so fall by the wayside, he misses the central point that, in such a society, economic concerns will no longer hold such sway over our lives.
Basic income advocates have not been silent on the topic of education — and, where they have addressed the matter, their words resonate with the points I have raised above.
For example, consider the views of two of the idea’s most prominent advocates: the economist Guy Standing, Professor at SOAS, University of London, and cofounder of Basic Income Earth Network; and the young Dutch journalist Rutger Bregman, whose book Utopia for Realists has done much to popularize the idea in the Netherlands and elsewhere.
In his two important and influential books on the precariat, The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class and The Precariat Charter, Standing stresses the need to return “Enlightenment values” to education:
The neo-liberal state has been transforming school systems to make them a consistent part of the market society, pushing education in the direction of ‘human capital’ formation and job preparation. It has been one of the ugliest aspects of globalisation.
Through the ages education has been regarded as a liberating, questioning, subversive process by which the mind is helped to develop nascent capacities. The essence of the Enlightenment was that the human being could shape the world and refine himself or herself through learning and deliberation. In a market society, that role is pushed into the margins. (The Precariat, p. 68)
Education is supposed to provide a road to wisdom and to stimulate curiosity, ethical values and creativity. Instead, as the number put through education grow globally, for more and more people it is just about preparing them for jobs and competing for jobs. Education is a public good. That is under threat. Enlightenment values at the heart of education must be revived, giving more scope for health non-conformism and the learning of ethics, empathy and morality. (The Precariat Charter, p. 293)
In a similar vein, Bregman devotes a section of Utopia for Realists to criticizing contemporary debates about education for invariably revolving around the question “Which knowledge and skills do today’s students need to get hired in tomorrow’s job market – the market of 2030?” This, he says, “is precisely the wrong question”:
In point of fact, we should be posing a different question altogether: Which knowledge and skills do we want our children to have in 2030? Then, instead of anticipating and adapting, we’d be focusing on steering and creating. Instead of wondering what we need to do to make a living, in this or that bullshit job, we could ponder how we want to make a living. (p. 136)
In laying the groundwork for a “utopia” with a basic income and 15-hour work week, Bregman sees the institution of education as existing to prepare students “not only for the job market but, more fundamentally, for life.” (p. 137)
There is a need for proponents of universal basic income to be more vocal in expressing such visions — or demands — for reforming the education system.
For one, a new vision for education can be wielded to address one deplorably common concern raised in criticisms of universal basic income — that, without a job, individuals would find their lives meaningless and valueless. Indeed, elsewhere in the same blog, Tucker states:
If the people rebelling now feel that they have been cast aside, just wait until they are told that their services are no longer needed and government will take care of them with a handout. As I see it, the most devastating aspect of the condition of many people now out of work is the damage to their self-respect, their image of themselves as contributors to their family and their community, the kind of self-respect that comes from the dignity conferred by work that is valued by the community.
Perhaps the very problem here is that our educational institutions have not adequately prepared workers to lead lives as valuable and productive citizens outside of the bounds of a job.
Marc Tucker, “Paying People Not to Work,” Education Week, June 4, 2016.
Thanks for Genevieve Shanahan for reviewing a draft of this article.
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