Friday, October 28, 2011

Higher Academic Education: a Road to Servitude?

The farm laborer and the artisan are in a state of servitude, and have to do what they are told, but that is where it ends.

But the courtiers of a tyrant ingratiate themselves with him and beg favors of him, and the tyrant, seeing this, requires them not just to do what he says but to think the way he wants them to and, often, to anticipate his desires.

It is not enough that these people obey him, they must also please him in every way, they must endure hardship, torment themselves and drive themselves to the grave in carrying out his business; his pleasure must be their pleasure, his taste must be theirs, they must distort and cast off their natural disposition, they must hang on his every word, his tone of voice, his gestures, his expression; their every faculty must be alert to catch his wishes and to discern his thoughts.

Is that a happy existence? Can that be called living? Is there anything in the world less tolerable than that? And I do not mean less tolerable to a man of valor, a man of natural goodness, but simply endowed to a man with common sense, or just someone who has the appearance of a man? What way of life is more abject than one bereft of possessions, in which one's comfort, liberty, body and life depend on someone else?

– E. De La Boetie (circa1548) A Discourse on Voluntary Servitude

Technical and Skills Education, known also as Vocational Education, has long been a dumping ground for students whose benighted teachers and school counselors have thought them to be “not suited” for higher “academic” studies, when, in many cases, what they lacked was maturity, docility, or refined manners.

The great irony of this 21st Century is that along with an ever increasing ardor for college life, high school graduates do not, in increasing numbers, come to the university with what many consider the requisite level of preparation to succeed at their studies.

Parents and students have been oversold on the idea that finishing college with a high G.P.A. is automatically the road to a good life, a future in the Seat of Command and Respect. But unless students acquire needed economic skills along the way, the likelihood is that they will end up, at best, in a large organizational environment, perhaps, even with a comfortable salary. And they will spend their lives “playing office politics,” catering to the whims of higher-ups, rather than producing desired goods or services. (Think of the cartoon, Dilbert -- it is not, by any means, based on pure imagination!)

This is what has happened in public education where politicians, courts and other distantly situated "tyrants" endeavor to remove the last vestiges of professional decision-making from those most closely connected to schoolkids.

To examine these issues further, see "Tracking" in Public Education: preparation for the world of work?

--- EGR