Sunday, December 15, 2013

Is Education for Employment a bad thing?

The link between education and employment appear broken and educators usually get blamed for it. This is somewhat paradoxical: At a time when graduate salaries are holding up despite the global recession and more people than ever go to College, their work should be celebrated. The corollary fact that too many people also remain unemployed after getting a college education can equally be blamed on rapidly shifting job market, something outside the educators' direct control. The employers, sitting cozy in these debates, have some blame to shoulder too: Over time, they have become very specific about who they employ, and adapted the mantra of 'hire slowly, fire fast'. The national governments love heaping the blame of unemployment on the educators' door, with the political objective of deflecting the blame from themselves as well as to craft a justification for reducing the budgetary allocation for Higher Education.

One would think that the educators usually do themselves a disservice by not participating in the public debate, somewhat pretending that the conversation about Higher Education must go beyond 'mere employment'. The idea that the universities have an inherent purpose for itself is central to those thinking: The point that one may need to reinvent what they are for is an anathema to most educators. And, indeed, the educators are not an united bunch: Oftentimes the Sciences and Technology faculty participate in a civil war blaming their humanities colleagues for not getting the point, and thus advancing the argument that a section of the community does not understand what the society expects from them. 

If this is the inside narrative, the events outside the academe make the educators' position even more precarious. 'Knowledge Society', a construct that all work has a knowledge element and therefore more and more people would be required to do sentient work, has two seemingly paradoxical effect on the business of education: One, it makes knowledge central to social progress, and therefore assign an unprecedented importance to the job that the educators do; two, it creates the imperative that knowledge must be commoditised and made available any time and for everyone, effectively decreeing an industrial revolution be unleashed on the educators' craft. The educators, somewhat besieged by wider rhetoric and blindsided by the conflicting demands they face, makes little of the continued importance that this places on their trade; instead, all too often, they seem to indulge in a self-defeating defense of the idea of knowledge for knowledge's sake, with full realisation that once the sexier outcomes are available with knowledge, such tame talk wouldn't impress. In the end, it is not the limitation of an educator's practice, but the constraints of their vocabulary which seems to put them at odds with the popular demand.

This is, however, a serious matter. Because the longer the educators continue to sleepwalk, the trade is filled up with charlatans of all kind, because there is an attractive opportunity to satiate a social demand. That knowledge needs to be harnessed for the goals of employment isn't a lesser goal, nor is it a worldwide conspiracy to undermine education: This reflects the new social imperative that the institutions must satisfy. In context, it is time to interrogate the vocabulary of Higher Education and join the debate in all earnestness: Denying that this is even important, as some educators still tend to do, yield the space to those who may truly undermine the business of education.

What about the two cultures inside the academe then? It may seem that the science and technology disciplines are more ready to engage in the business of the economic value led domain of practical education, but humanities are not. However, this is not the disciplinary boundaries that constrain such engagement, but vocabularies that are primarily grounded in the past. Today's competences are still centered on the search for truth, beauty and morality, assisted by a keen eye and an agile mind. Employment in today's business organisations may indeed appear like slavery to the critical eye, but professions are indeed changing fast and whether individual corporations may or may not want sentient students, they would still push the boundaries of the profession and help build new standards and trades. The good news for humanities is that almost all employment is like entrepreneurship now (or going to be), each one being an individual agent, enabled to take decisions and imagine new possibilities. The moment the humanities disciplines re-imagine their vocabulary, and instead rediscover their values (which somewhat got buried in the technicalities of bureaucratic education), it would be evident that they have not been left out after all.

Indeed, despite many tragedies and wasted lives, that's what many pragmatic students are doing. The successful Sociology student, who highlight their experiences in behavioural research and experiences of working among disadvantaged communities in London, rather than hiding behind the fashionable names and luxuriously obscure theories, is building on his education in the context of social need. The Literature Graduate who have used the power of the language and metaphors into a successful small business of content writing, the History graduate who has taken on policy research for an investment firm, are not surrendering to the neo-liberal values: They are just being pragmatic, as people through generations have always been. They are using the powerful tools that education has equipped them with and making a difference, in their own lives but also in the lives of others around them.

So, instead of holding out and feeling besieged, educators need to engage in this debate. It is they who should hold the others - the employers, the governments - accountable: They should assume their responsibility to build successful lives and successful societies. They should stop hiding behind the disciplinary idyls and stop playing the game of entitlements that they have got so used to. An educator's success, by their own definition, is manifested in that of its students; it is time to remember the core value of the profession over and above the privilege of public purse and bureaucratic entitlements that everyone got so used to.

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