Beyond Job Skills

Dec. 21, 2004

Im getting awfully tired of listening to CEOs prattle on about education. You know the ones I mean. The CEOs who announce that their biggest problem is finding qualified workers, and that the problem would be solved if only they would fix the schools. I never know who they are, by the way; after all, these CEOs live in communities and could involve themselves and their companies in school affairs -- but let that go for now. Nobody would argue that U.S. primary and secondary students, particularly in larger, older urban districts, often are ill-served by a system hamstrung by intransigent unions and massive inequalities in local funding. Next these CEOs announce that they have a plan for fixing schools, always delivered with table-thumping gusto: Well run them more like businesses! Mind you, this often comes from CEOs who have nearly ruined their own companies for lack of training programs. But grant that efficient management of schools -- driven, more than likely, by some sort of voucher-based competition for students and funding -- would go a long way toward alleviating the malaise that afflicts students, parents, educators, and businesses alike. Now comes the point where CEOs get in trouble. Ask impertinently how a CEO would evaluate whether a given school is successful and the answer is likely to be more harrumphing, followed by "All I want from a school are graduates with employable skills." No, you dont, I always say. Why not? Because a school and an education serve many objectives, only a few of them commercially oriented. We want our children to acquire basic learning skills -- reading, writing, arithmetic -- not only so that they might support themselves by working for some lucky CEO, but also so they might have access to other realms of knowledge, in fields as diverse as engineering or art history or 19th-century British literature. Some of these fields will reward their students financially, while others will leave their practitioners paupers. Regardless of remuneration, however, their study enriches the human experience not only of their students, but of society as well. Even more important, especially in the U.S., is the role that schools play in turning a country of immigrants from diverse political and cultural backgrounds into a citizenry united around core social values -- including self-determination, democracy, and tolerance, to name a few. James Bryant Conant, president of Harvard University from 1933 to 1953, said it best in 1943: "Our purpose is to cultivate in the largest possible number of our future citizens an appreciation of both the responsibilities and the benefits which come to them because they are Americans and because they are free." With a population growing more ethnically diverse and rich each passing year, I ask CEOs, can we really afford to have an education system whose only goal is to transfer job skills? Or should we -- and maybe you, Mr. or Ms. CEO -- put the table-thumping aside and begin working together on creating schools that graduate not just employees, but citizens? Send e-mail messages to John Brandt at [email protected]

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