Monday, May 30, 2011

The Hard Sell on Education

OK here is a conversation that took place in a restaurant:

Child: It's a good thing that not everyone has graduated from High School.

Me: Why?

Child: Because otherwise there'd be no waiters here.

There ensued a longer conversation about jobs, status, life opportunities etc. But the curious thing was where that initial comment came from in the first place. It turned out that the child in question had been repeatedly been told that you want to get a good education so that you could get a good job -- that is, not a waiter, janitor or the myriad of other observable jobs they see around daily. This was a line sold at school and may have been a line sold at home -- although in that case, our line is that there is no choice -- so there isn't much in the way of selling that goes on. 

The child in question saw through the equilibrium of the statement that everyone should get an education. Basically, if everyone gets a high school education, then the list of jobs that people do when they don't get such an education will be unfilled. In the whole equation, these tasks are seemingly necessary but there was the apparent paradox that they were underpaid and otherwise what people would not want to do.

Now the economic answer to all of this, by the way, is that wages would adjust and those tasks would (a) either be a lot more lucrative than they are today or (b) more likely, that capital will substitute for labor. If the costs of bringing food to tables gets too high, customers will end up doing it themselves. You only need to compare the task allocation in countries where fewer people have a high school education to see that one. That, of course, doesn't stop the notion that some jobs are better than others. 

There is, however, a broader issue. Our common marketing job on education is that we want people to have better jobs. At the same time, at least at the level of our children, we are trying to teach respect and understanding. We are not trying to stereotype or infer one's happiness based on what they are doing. Yet, the whole marketing campaign on education does just that. 

And given that paradox the alternatives aren't that great. One alternative is that you receive an education to fulfil a love of learning. So you get to love learning, paid for by someone else, and then you get a great job too? This doesn't seem like a great message either. 

And what of the "education is hard work" sell. You work hard at education now and get rewards later. "Those who do not have the rewards have not worked hard enough" would be the implication. But we are educating there in the face of experience. Every student knows that for every person working hard and not making it, there are others not working hard but on a track to a better life regardless. There are some levels at which the theory may relate to the experience but I am willing to bet that isn't what's happening through high school. 

There is no easy out on all of this. But as usual children are uniquely qualified to exploit paradoxes and ambiguities in conventional thinking.