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Education Should Have Second and Third Acts

A Commentary by Froma Harrop

Thursday, May 10, 2012

On the HBO series "Girls," Hannah asks her boss at a publishing house for a salary. The 24-year-old has been working as an unpaid intern for over a year, and her parents will no longer support her.

When the boss responds in the negative -- "I am really going to miss your energy," he coldly says -- Hannah notes that another young woman hired as an intern is now getting paid. "Joy Lin knows Photoshop," he explains.

Education and the tech skills even straight-A English majors need: All come together in the new world of employability. They should flow like water, and some already do.

Hannah could have picked up Photoshop at a local "learning connection" or through free online tutorials. Likewise, a master of Photoshop could have gathered the literary requirements with a library card or online courses now offered by leading universities. Same would go for a laid-off pipefitter.

Of course, in-person attendance at a school of higher learning remains the main path for academic certification, but must that always be the case? The information revolution says otherwise. And for all the emotional connections these venerable institutions have built, the debt their high prices dump on students is a scandal.

Remaking education to prepare Americans for good jobs in the 21st century is a fine thing. But education must also be about creating good citizens and good people. Building a society we want to live in requires more than tech savvy. It requires well-rounded participants who know history as well as computer code, who can express themselves in writing, who know something about how economic systems work.

We have a values debate on our hands. And with government a major source of education financing and student loans, we have a political struggle, as well.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott gave us a taste of discussions to come. The Republican proposes "shifting funding to degrees that have the best job prospects, weeding out unproductive professors and rethinking the system that offers faculty job security," wrote Zac Anderson in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune.

Meanwhile, Sen. Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, has introduced a bill mandating that postsecondary schools provide their graduates' average annual earnings, among other data. "Students have a right to know how long it will take them to complete their education, what their likelihood of completion is, how far that education will take them after graduation and at what cost," Wyden wrote.

Ending teachers' job security (tenure) makes sense. Less appetizing is giving politicos of whatever flavor the power to decide what makes a prof unproductive or otherwise undeserving of an academic job. Nor are all important modern skills directly tied to professional or technical expertise. The increasingly collaborative work model calls for employees with some grasp on how others think and feel. Selling anything in the global economy demands languages and understanding of different cultures.

The more information the better, I suppose, but how useful is a bunch of averages? Why compare institutions that attract pampered high school graduates with those that take more chances on students from hard-luck backgrounds? Is graduating college in four years superior to graduating in six years after working part-time to pay the bills? A certificate in elementary education tends to deliver lower earnings than a degree in marketing, but does that make the teacher's value to society any less?

The best way to remove politicians from deciding what kinds of study are worthwhile is to make the education product cheap and plentiful. Online or informal learning should lead the way. Independent of age, income level or past grades, Americans should be able to get the education they need and the education they want.

COPYRIGHT 2012 THE PROVIDENCE JOURNAL CO.

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See Other Political Commentary

See Other Commentaries by Froma Harrop.

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