How should progressives argue for expanded education? Danielle Allen is right to think that the vocational paradigm that has come to dominate policy discussion is too narrow. This is true for the reasons she stresses and several others.
First, policymakers tend to speak as if the primary obligation of the state were to educate children for the job market. This is supposed to justify the overwhelming emphasis on expanding scientific literacy and skills in quantitative reasoning. Yet when politicians, including President Obama, call on schools to do even more to privilege math and science over the humanities, they typically fail to note that what CEOs of leading corporations say they want most are technically capable employees who can think outside the box, with creative minds steeped in the liberal arts. The vocational paradigm’s single-minded focus on STEM fields is misguided even on its own terms.
Why should a moral transformation happen through the education system?
Of course, innovative employers often want to hire only the “best” graduates from the “best” schools. Surely, you might think, privileging STEM education is critical for increasing the wages of the average blue-collar worker. In fact, the evidence is mixed, even in the comparatively high-skill manufacturing sector. As business scholar Paul Osterman has shown, fewer than half of all manufacturing employers seek even basic reading and math skills—the ability to read manuals, write short notes, and add, subtract, divide, and multiply. Only a small fraction of them report being unable to find workers with sufficient skills for existing job openings. In addition, manufacturing wages have been stagnant; if there were a profound skills shortage in the new economy, then, all else being equal, one would expect them to have risen. In any case, growing economic inequality has important structural sources. Witness, for instance, the worldwide decline in the labor share of total business income—the fraction of all income accruing to labor rather than capital—since the 1980s. No more than half of this decline can be attributed to the falling prices of computers and automation technology, and even this source of inequality will not be addressed by giving one child the skills to outcompete another for whatever opportunities remain in the post-industrial job market.
If addressing inequality requires not just more STEM education but also major changes to the basic structure of the American economy, then Allen is right to think that education for participatory readiness should be an important concern of citizens and policymakers. Simply put, the next generation must be able to understand economic and social injustice and to advocate and fight effectively for its abolition. The case is only strengthened when we notice how much inequality in the United States today can be traced to racially biased mass incarceration. White men and women need to be not just scientifically but also morally competent to sit on juries.
But education can take us only so far when the basic structure of society is unfair. What reason is there to believe that a deeper moral transformation can happen through the education system, whatever the curriculum? American schools are not responsible for producing the leaders of the abolitionist and civil rights movements, or the changes in mass attitudes and beliefs that we call the sexual revolution.
This is not a reason to deny that education for democratic citizenship should be an important public goal. Still, when I think of the importance of education today, I find this aim much too confining in itself. The most important reason to improve education is not to make children fit for tomorrow’s job market. Nor is it to make them capable of voting well and serving on a jury. It is to help people escape a life of vapid consumerism by giving them capacities to appreciate richer pursuits and to produce their own complex meanings. When we evaluate proposals for cutting the humanities from educational curricula, we should judge them above all by reference to this criterion.