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Education Is Education, and Work Is Work -- Shall Ever the Twain Meet?

by James O'Toole - 1979

This article is adapted from a presentation made as part of the lecture series "Education Tomorrow: Changes, Challenges and Conflicts" presented at Teachers College during the Spring of 1979. The author begins with a quick review of the facts about the relationship between education and work, keeping them clearly separate from pseudo-facts and speculation, and then gets to the central question of what should be done to better relate education to work.

This article is adapted from a presentation made as part of the lecture series "Education Tomorrow: Changes, Challenges and Conflicts" presented at Teachers College during the Spring of 1979. The complete lecture series will be published as a volume under the same title edited by Frederick R. Brodzinski.

Education is a depressed industry, much like those other basket cases of the American economy: textiles, shoe manufacturing, and shipbuilding. It is not, of course, in the nature of the threatened industrialist to roll over and play dead. The managers of the firms that produce the nation's shirts, shoes, and ships are, for example, busily engaged in a frenetic survival drill. These erstwhile advocates of laissez-faire are now petitioning Washington's mullahs to provide them with bail-outs, subsidies, tariff protection, and exemptions from antitrust and other forms of regulation.

Ditto educational entrepreneurs. As hypocritical as the industrialists, these administrators and scholars are also whining their way to Washington to gain exemption from government regulation. That the hated regulations were created by members of the academic community themselves—and that they cheered loudest when these regulations were foisted on industry—is an irony lost on the educators as they go slouching toward the Capitol in pale imitation of the businessmen they have so despised.

But in crisis there is creativity. To get their enterprise back on its feet, educators are willing to try anything (except to spend more time with students, give up the practice of tenure, and betray a few dozen other similarly inviolable principles of academia; apparently conditions are merely critical, not desperate). No, this is a time for inventive marketing, not for reform. To this end, the managers of the nation's high schools, colleges, and universities have discovered the institution of work. Work, they claim, is either the cause of the current depression in education or it is the solution to the depression. This insight (as it were) is the foundation of the newest theme in education: "making education more relevant to the world of work." In great and growing numbers, educators are convinced that if they can just set this line to a catchy tune, consumers will again beat a path to their now slightly overgrown doors.

As with all instances of common wisdom, there is more than a modicum of truth in the discovery that work and education are related. Indeed, some things are known about this relationship with a certainty approaching scientific fact. For example, a great deal is known about the unfortunate interaction of three historical trends: changes in demographics, the educational attainment of the work force, and the occupational structure of the economy.

There are other things about this relationship for which there is considerable evidence, but not at the level of validity required by science. For example, a bit is known about demographic projections, about the changing work attitudes and values of young Americans, about what employers seem to be looking for in prospective employees, and about the productivity of educated workers in jobs that do not meet their expectations. Such information is in a shadowy area that might be called pseudo-fact, or social-science fiction.

Finally, there is a domain of pure speculation. This area includes such questions as "What are the consequences for the institutions of work and education of the above facts and pseudo-facts?" and "What should be done?" Unfortunately, this uncharted domain contains the toughest and most important issues facing policymakers. And, as I argue below, it is within this normative area that educators are going astray. But before getting to the central question of what should be done to better relate education to work, let us begin with a quick review of the facts about this relationship, keeping them clearly separate from pseudo-facts and speculation.



The size of the work force has grown by about 50 percent over the last quarter century. Our demographic story begins in the late forties with the rabbitlike behavior of young married couples. (Recall for a moment the old days, when people used to get married.) Of the babies born to these couples in the boom years 1945-1955, the oldest started to enter the work force in 1960. Between 1960 and 1976, the number of young people aged 15-24 in the work force increased by a phenomenal 100 percent. By 1985 this, the largest age cohort in the nation's history, will be approaching middle age and will represent nearly 50 percent of the entire U.S. work force. The percentages are impressive, but the raw numbers involved are staggering. For example, in 1975 there were forty million workers in the 25-45 age category; by 1990, there will be sixty million. To complete the story, if we follow this cohort until their hairs gray, we find that their numbers will have advanced the median age of the entire work force to 35 in the year 2000, up from 28 in 1970.

But the baby boom is not the only major demographic shift occurring in the work force. During the last quarter century, the female participation rate increased from 33 percent to 47 percent—accounting for 60 percent of the total increase in the labor force. Thus, not only did America witness an increase in its population pool, but the largest percentage of that pool in history chose to enter the paid, civilian labor force. The net effect has been an increase of 47 percent in the total size of the work force over the last twenty-five years.


The educational system is turning out twice the number of college graduates annually that it did in 1950. Americans point with considerable pride to the familiar statistics that document the educational explosion that has occurred since the end of World War II. In 1947, only 33 percent of students completed high school; today about 80 percent graduate. In 1950, the median educational attainment of the work force was 9.3 years; today it is 12.4 years.

But the most dramatic changes have occurred in higher education. In 1950, only 6 percent of workers over age twenty-five had a college education; by 1977 the figure was 15 percent, and among the baby-boom generation the figure was 24 percent. Looked at another way, the United States produced 400,000 new baccalaureates a year in 1950, and double that amount in 1977. The number of Ph.D.'s increased sixfold over the same time frame.

During the last decade, while the boom babies were in college, four-year college enrollment increased by 70 percent and junior college enrollments increased by 230 percent. The net effect was this: Twice as many college graduates entered the labor market between 1969 and 1976 as entered during the previous seven-year period.


The total of professional, technical, and managerial jobs as a percentage of all jobs in the economy has not grown over the last two and a half decades. Since 1950, the U.S. population has increased by 47 percent and the percentage of jobs created has increased by 48 percent. This would be an enviable record if it were not for the fact that, because of the increase in female labor force participation, the rate of unemployment doubled over this period. The numbers also mask two other trends:

—Industries that pay below-average wages grew at a rate of 128 percent, while industries that pay above-average wages grew at a rate of only 28 percent. According to Columbia University's Eli Ginzberg, high-paying industries, like construction and manufacturing, have not grown greatly in terms of the numbers of new jobs created, while, for example, the services industry grew by 172 percent (nine million new jobs were created in this industry alone). Indeed, two out of three of all jobs created in the last twenty-five years were in retail trade or services—traditionally low-wage, low-benefit industries. Government, the industry with the second highest growth rate (150 percent), now offers the highest pay and benefits. Yet, 60 percent to 70 percent of the new jobs being created in government are in categories of aide, attendant and assistant, clerical worker, custodian, and semiskilled blue collar. Subtracting teachers from the total, 78 percent of all state and local government workers are in the categories of clerical and service workers.

—Turning to an analysis of changes in the structure of the economy by occupation, one finds, of course, parallel trends to the industrial figures cited above. The good news is that the percentage of professional and technical workers has risen steadily over the last decade. The bad news is that the percentage of jobs in the category of managers and administrators has declined slightly, and the percentage of self-employed workers has plummeted precipitously. The real growth in terms of percentages has occurred in the clerical and services categories.

In summary, let us view the facts about changes that have occurred over the last twenty-five years:

—There has been an increase in the size of the work force, particularly in the age group that is now 24 to 34.

—There has been an increase in the educational attainment of the work force, particularly among the same-age cohort.

—There has been a relative decrease in the percentage of jobs in high-paying industries, and a relative decrease in the percentage of jobs traditionally held by college graduates.

Any analysis of the interactions among these three sets of facts is in the area of pseudo-science, for it depends on economic and sociological methods that not only are technically imperfect, but require subjective judgments as to which techniques should be applied and which numbers should be included in analysis. For what follows, then, caveat lector.


If one is inclined to look for a silver lining in the facts reported above, it will not be found by analyzing the skill level required for jobs, for this has not increased over the last thirty years. The Office of Management and Budget reports that the average job required 10.0 years of schooling in 1940, and 10.5 years in 1970. And the Bureau of Labor Statistics forecasts that fewer than 20 percent of all jobs will require a college education in 1980.

Recently Ivar Berg found the following: In 1950, 7.2 percent of the work force had sixteen or more years of education, but only 6.4 percent of all jobs required that much schooling. In 1970, 12.6 percent of the work force had sixteen or more years of schooling, but only 10.1 percent of all jobs required that much schooling. In short, between 1950 and 1968, demand for college graduates roughly equalled supply; after 1968, supply began to exceed demand. Thus, Berg concludes that one-fifth of the ten million college graduates in 1970 did not hold jobs that required their level of educational attainment. The federal government reports that 25 percent of college graduates between 1969 and 1976 took jobs previously held by nongraduates. During this most recent period, the relative number of male college graduates working in sales increased by 30 percent and the percentage of women college graduates working as secretaries increased by an alarming 100 percent. Viewed another way, the return on investment on a college education fell about 25 percent during the last decade. For the first time in history, high school dropouts who obtain unionized blue-color jobs can actually earn more than the average college graduate.

The problems might be considered transitory, but the federal government says otherwise. While hardly an unimpeachable source, federal statistics forecast that college graduates entering the labor force will exceed job openings in professional and managerial categories by about 2.7 million over the next decade. In short, 2l/2 college graduates will be competing for every choice job. The Department of Labor forecasts that most growth will be in such occupations as secretaries, local truck drivers, cooks, and chefs; not in occupations to which college graduates have traditionally aspired.

As the following table shows, the Department of Labor expects the percentage of professional, self-employed, and skilled blue-collar workers to shrink in the total work force, while the percentage of clerical and services workers will grow markedly.


These shifts have not been occurring in isolation. Concomitant with them have been the advent of affirmative action, the end of compulsory retirement, and the general slowing of growth in the economy. All these factors have increased the percentage of workers competing for the most desirable jobs.

We now move onto even softer ground: an analysis of the changing expectations, values, and attitudes of the generation of young adults whose careers we have been following. Almost all the data show a continued pattern of rising expectations among youth:

—They expect to go on to higher levels of education. In 1974, for example, nearly 60 percent of college freshmen planned to go to graduate school.

—They expect to get good jobs. In 1974, 54 percent of high school seniors aspired to professional, technical, or managerial jobs.

Most strikingly, young Americans seem to feel that they have a right to realize these expectations. Daniel Yankelovich and others have identified a "psychology of entitlement," or a rising rights-consciousness in America, particularly among young workers. Things that were once privileges to be earned are today assumed to be the right of a citizen, or a right that adheres automatically to employment. In this latter category is a host of new rights including health care, vested pensions, maternity benefits, and educational tuition remission. Significantly, the domain of rights is being extended beyond fringe benefits: Yankelovich found, for example, that 53 percent of young workers feel they are entitled to participate in decision making on the job.

Yankelovich has also found that the attitudes about work differ markedly between the baby-boom generation and their parents' generation. This difference extends beyond the fact that young people are more discontented with the work than are their elders. Unlike the security-conscious generation raised during the Depression, Yankelovich finds that 80 percent of young workers would welcome less emphasis on money, 68 percent are looking for jobs in which they can express themselves, and 77 percent are looking for challenge on the job.

In more recent findings, Lewis Solmon and his associates have found a renewed interest in money on the part of the baby-boom generation, but the other desires about the quality of working life found by Yankelovich seem not to have abated. In a longitudinal study of the college freshman class of 1970, Solmon found the following changes in their work attitudes seven years later:

—a 16 percent increase in percentage of those concerned with "being very well-off financially"

—a 12 percent increase in those who are concerned with "being successful in a business of my own"

—an 11 percent increase in those wishing to obtain "recognition from my colleagues for contributions to my special field"

—a 19 percent increase in those desiring to have "administrative responsibility for the work of others"

Solmon has also found that "full skill-utilization" is closely associated with job satisfaction among this generation, and that the status and prestige of jobs is the most closely linked variable to satisfaction.

In summary, the facts show a growing disjunction between the demand for jobs traditionally attractive to college degree holders and the supply of such jobs. And the pseudo-facts show rising expectations for good jobs at exactly the time when the odds for realizing these expectations are dropping.

To analyze the consequences of these shifts in the labor force and its values, we now move to the airy domain of pure speculation. One might well conclude that America is nurturing a generation of disaffected young people. Particularly, given their history of having faced the highest rates of teenage unemployment since the Depression, and having experienced the traumas of the Vietnam era, we could well expect them to be mad as hell and equipped with the activist techniques to do something about their anger. At a minimum, we could expect workers with high credentials trapped in jobs below their levels of expectation to be unmotivated and unproductive. Interestingly, there is little evidence that today's 24 to 34 year-olds are either disaffected radicals or unmotivated clock-watchers on the job. To be fair, this evidence to which I refer is derived from the extremely unsophisticated methods of the social sciences. These are the very same methods that fail to show significant correlations between any objective conditions and work attitude variables. Nonetheless, casual observation confirms that the baby-boom generation's behavior is not presenting employers with radical problems.

But what are radical problems? Human resource managers are claiming with increasing frequency that young workers are acting on the values they have expressed to pollsters Yankelovich, Harris, and Solmon for a decade. From these managers, we hear that young workers have low levels of loyalty to organizations; that is, if they do not find the conditions they want, their attachment to jobs is so weak that they will move from one to the next until they find a job that does provide what they are looking for. We hear that they will not sacrifice their personal lives to their jobs; for example, they outright refuse cross-country transfers. We hear that they talk back when given orders, and constantly question authority. We hear that they learned some lessons about the process of change during the Vietnam protests: They now know how to eventuate change while working within organizations. We hear that the best of the generation are refusing to join the staffs of large, hierarchical organizations—choosing instead new, small, or entrepreneurial firms. We hear that there are now some ten thousand co-ops, worker-owned firms, and other alternative businesses run by members of this generation.

But all this is hearsay. Business Week, Fortune, and other business journals have engaged in their own speculations about what will happen when this take-over generation actually takes over. The gurus in the press speculate that there will be fierce competition up the corporate ladder; the younger workers will push out their elders to create more opportunities for themselves; frustrated middle managers will join unions; young workers will eventually dismantle the traditional corporate hierarchy; failing to find jobs that meet their expectations, they will revert to the radical political behavior of their youth.

Another interpretation is being offered by a curious melange of economists, labor union leaders, and conservative pundits from the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal. This group argues that the market will take care of any discrepancies between labor force supply and demand. Moreover, they suggest that the cold realities of the labor market will soon enough dampen the expectations of young workers down to realistic levels. As they mature, young workers can be predicted to discover that all that matters in work are job security and decent pay. Thus, for employers to take any kind of action based solely on the attitudes of young workers, while their behavior is so manifestly placid, is only to cater to the alarmist tendencies of reformers and other humanist do-gooders. If young workers really wanted change in the work place, they would organize and demand it.

Finally, there is the opposed interpretation, according to the Harvard Business Review and Business and Society Review. A large number of scholars writing in these journals suggest that the attitudes expressed by young workers are real, and are currently expressed in passive behavior—that is, in what might be called opportunity costs for organizations. The problem at the moment is that young workers are withholding full commitment to their tasks and the organizations in which they work. On the societal level, the problem is that the skills, talent, intelligence, ingenuity, creativity, and other abilities of the work force are being grossly underutilized. Thus, whether from the point of view of individual workers, the organization, or the nation, these scholars argue that it is incumbent on us to make better use of the nation's human resources. Because developing these human resources is the best way to meet the growing disjunctions in the labor force and its values, they suggest the following kinds of proactive changes for workplaces:

1. redesigning jobs to more fully utilize the human resources of the society

2. changing the hierarchical nature of organizations and careers to provide for lateral moves, earlier responsibility, and alternative career paths

3. improving methods to better match individual needs with job requirements

4. increasing the opportunities for worker participation in decision making

5. generally providing more options to workers in terms of hours, conditions, and nature of jobs, and offering greater flexibility and mobility in realizing these options

Now these are the major ways in which the facts are being interpreted. While I personally subscribe to the gospel according to the Harvard Business Review, I am the first to admit that it is hard for educators to know how to interpret the facts and pseudo-facts about the work force. And it is even harder to identify which ideological perspective on the issue comes closest to being the truth.


Nevertheless, it is easy to demonstrate that work affects education, and education affects work. And that is enough for America's educators. They have used this particle of truth as a springboard to take a prodigious leap of logic: Ergo, they conclude, we must improve the fit between education and work. This goal is pursued in many and various ways, including career education in the elementary schools, vocational education in the high schools, professional education in undergraduate colleges, and dozens of "non traditional" efforts to import work-place concerns into classrooms at all levels. Since none of these activities have worked terribly well, educators far and near are now intensifying their efforts. "We will make education relevant for work," educators are saying with Germanic resolve.

But how? Vocationalism has a long and unglorious history of failure. And the reasons for these well-documented failures are hardly addressed by increasing the commitment to do more of the same. After decades of trying, it still seems nearly impossible to train young people appropriately in schools and colleges for specific jobs because:

1. It is impossible to forecast labor-market demand more than a few months into the future. Thus, by the time schools can gear up to train anvil salesmen, all the available jobs in this field will be filled before the first A.A.'s in Anvils have their degrees.

2. There are tens of thousands of different types of jobs, and it is unclear which skills are needed to do most of these jobs successfully. Consequently, it is also unclear how schools should go about training people for most jobs. What, for example, is the proper academic curriculum for one who aspires to repair roofs?

3. Most skills needed in lower-level jobs are taught to workers on the job in a matter of a couple of weeks. Hence, students who will be looking for such jobs upon graduation do not require specific skills training in educational institutions. For such semiskilled jobs as roof repairing, a year's fully-paid apprenticeship will leave one an expert on every house cover from tiles to tar paper, while even eighteen years of unpaid formal education will leave one still falling off the roof. And most upper-level jobs that undeniably require specific skills training are at the graduate level where professional schools are already fully geared to the world of work.

4. Although there is a small, residual category of technical, nonprofessional jobs that might require some formal classroom training, this training is provided by proprietary schools. But, in fact, almost none of these licensed, nonprofessional jobs actually require any specific training. For example, anybody with a decent high school education can learn almost all he needs to know about selling real estate by reading a single, short book. Phony educational qualifications for selling real estate are erected in some states solely as self-serving barriers to entry, not for the altruistic reason of "protecting consumers by insuring highly trained real estate agents." As far as I can tell, the only real value of real estate schools is as compensatory education for those who did not learn how to read well enough in high school or college to get through the how-to manual on the occupation.

"But. . . but. . . ," the stuttering reply of the vocationalist can be heard even before the argument is completed, "but if what you say is true, why is there so much youth unemployment?" It was in anticipation of this obvious question that I described the changing demographics of the work force. Those same numbers show that the nation is now beginning a two-decade period during which the number of young people entering the labor market will decline drastically as a percentage of the entire labor force. Since it was basically the demographics of the baby boom that created the current employment problems of young Americans, it can be reasonably expected that the new demographic picture wall turn the problem around for the baby bust generation. What must be recognized is that there has never been a problem of "fitting education to the world of work" during periods of labor shortages. During World War II, for example, minorities, youth, and women went productively to work on the nation's assembly lines without the benefit of vocational training. Clearly, then, the problems young people have had getting entry-level jobs during the last fifteen years have not been the result of lack of skills training in the schools. (This also means that when youth start finding jobs more easily during the next decade, education will not deserve any credit for this inevitable result of demographic change.)


Having said all this, I nevertheless believe that there is something to the argument that education is failing to adequately prepare young Americans for workaday life. This failure occurs not in vocational concerns but in the prime educational functions of teaching young people to read, write, compute, think critically and analytically, and behave ethically and responsibly as workers, citizens, parents, and friends. Accomplishing these functions would provide more than adequate preparation for any kind of work that one could imagine. Moreover, one might venture the scandalous hypothesis that it is this failure of education to accomplish its prime tasks that has created the demand for it to take on the spurious tasks of specific job preparation. That is, since employers cannot find young employees who have learned how to read, write, think, and exercise initiative and responsibility at work, these employers are saying that they then will have to settle for dumb robots who at least have been trained to obediently flip switch X and turn handle Y.

Thus the problem feeds on itself: (a) Failure to truly educate students creates (b) demands for vocationalism, which in turn act as (c) constraints on achieving the educational reforms needed to make education do its prime tasks well enough to make graduates successful at work. Clearly, something must be done to alter this conundrum. And intensifying vocationalism hardly seems a logical way out.

Instead of increasing the very actions that have led to the current depression in education, it would seem more prudent and appropriate for educators to change their policies. In the short run, it will be necessary to appease the public and their elected followers in the Congress and the state legislatures through directly confronting the problem of the shortage of jobs for youth. (While demographics will take care of this problem in the long run, some short-run actions may be necessary.) In addition, educators may have to address the problem of underemployment, or working in a job that fails to meet one's expectations. The unreal expectations of youth seem to stem, quite simply, from the fact that few young Americans have any real job experience.

As a step toward dealing with these problems of youth unemployment and underemployment, educators may have to get on the current "national service" bandwagon. Congressman McCloskey and others are calling for a reinstatement of the draft, and it seems inevitable that this bipartisan effort will succeed. Along with the draft, there probably will come a system of alternative service for those young men and women who find the military to be morally repugnant. It now behooves educators to insure that national service becomes an educative experience for youth, and not just a way for the armed forces to reduce their manpower costs. Educators might work to achieve a system in which the vast majority of young men and women worked a year or two for their country after high school. This postponement of entrance into college for two years would have the following kinds of benefits:

1. It would relieve the problems of youth unemployment at ages 17-19, the most difficult years to find jobs. While finding educative work for several million youths would not be easy, it would not be impossible. Even one as philosophically opposed to government-provided employment as William F. Buckley has suggested that taking care of elderly Americans would be a useful way to employ countless teenagers.

2. It would give young people some actual work experience and, thus, help them to create realistic expectations about work. In addition, it would help underprivileged youth develop the appropriate habits of punctuality and self-discipline, the lack of which we are told is the prime reason they cannot get or retain jobs.

3. It would help young people when they went looking for jobs after they completed national service. Richard Bolles and other experts on careers have shown that a whole resume can be written around one work experience, no matter how trivial it may have been.

4. Most important, it would improve the performance of young people once they went to college after the two-year interregnum. There is little question that older students get more out of the experience of college than do those who enter directly out of high school. It seems that a little life and work after high school give students the maturity and experience on which to hang their conceptual studies.

Those who would dismiss these ideas as impractical might first ask if they are more impractical than turning all of education into a training ground for industry.

Once national service was taking care of the problems of youth unemployment and underemployment, formal education would be free to concentrate on its prime tasks. Educators could then concentrate on demonstrating to the public that reading, writing, computing, analytical thinking, problem solving, and all the essential, enculturating aspects of general education are relevant for work.

This reform should not be as difficult as it may sound. Significantly, it is starting to dawn on corporate leaders that they need broadly and liberally educated employees. In the last two decades, corporate recruiters and personnel managers have been hiring narrowly trained specialists to fill lower-level openings. While these new hires meet the immediate needs of a firm, as time goes along it becomes clear that they are not promotable. Thus, American corporations now are being forced to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on employee education in a not terribly successful effort to prepare lower- and middle-level employees to assume greater responsibility. The corporations are finding it deucedly difficult to broaden the horizons of, for example, forty- and fifty-year-old engineers. That broadening would have occurred more naturally had these people pursued liberal undergraduate educations instead of specializing in engineering from their freshman years.

At the start of this article, I alluded to the fact that many American corporations are undergoing competitive crises. Because they have not been able to respond adequately to the changing needs of society, they are losing business to domestic and foreign competitors. A part of the problem is that these corporations are run by managers who have been narrowly trained. When the world changes, the specialist—whether an engineer or an accountant—has a harder time than the generalist in adapting to the change. These inflexibly trained people are easily threatened by change. Once threatened, they act defensively—which is exactly the wrong mental state when what is demanded is innovation and initiative. Moreover, threatened managers often behave in ways that society deems irresponsible. Too often it was narrowly trained engineers, scientists, and people with undergraduate degrees in business who panicked at places like Lockheed and paid bribes to foreign officials, who panicked at places like Allied Chemical and dumped Kepone into the James River, and who panicked at places like General Motors and spied on Ralph Nader when he was challenging the safety of the Corvair. Of course, there were also liberally educated people involved in these and other instances of corporate irresponsibility. The point is not that liberally educated people are more moral or ethical than narrowly trained specialists. Rather, corporate leaders are now finding that over 50 percent of their time is devoted to social issues—complex, ambiguous, sensitive, human issues that technicians are less prepared than generalists to handle.

Lower down the organizational ladder, vocationally trained workers are ill equipped for the more democratic forms of self-management (described above) that many experts predict will become the norm in American industry. Moreover, most futurists are forecasting that almost all routine work will be done by machines in coming decades. This means that all "people work" will be nonroutine. In the future, then, the success or failure of American enterprises will rest on the willingness and the ability of workers to take initiative in those increasingly frequent situations that cannot be routinely handled. This means that workers will have to take responsibility for the welfare of customers, suppliers, and fellow workers. In short, they will have to care about their work. What will be required is humane individuals with analytical and entrepreneurial skills, people who know how to work in groups, people who know how to solve problems, and people who will not panic when something untoward starts to occur at places like Three Mile Island.

Unfortunately, people who are vocationally trained to unquestioningly perform a single task are manifestly unprepared to design their own work, participate in decision making, assume control over their own working conditions, work as members of a community of equals, or take responsibility for the quantity and quality of their own work when a boss is not looking over their shoulders. Like narrowly trained managers, these workers, too, are easily threatened by change, act defensively, inflexibly, and in ways society deems irresponsible when circumstances require them to adapt.


Ironically, then, the well-intentioned efforts of educators to professionalize undergraduate education and to vocationalize the high schools have made education less relevant for work than it would have been had these efforts not been made. Unfortunately, this situation cannot be put right merely by abandoning all manifestations of vocationalism, career education, and professionalization in the schools and colleges. An adequate response to the original question, "What should be done?" would necessitate going far beyond abandoning trendy "work relevance." At the level of higher education, for example, a radical reorganization of the entire enterprise would be needed to produce graduates who could cope with future working problems. Experts feel that these problems will include: a growing estrangement between corporate behavior and the needs and interests of society, failure of corporations to adapt themselves to new competitive challenges from abroad, and failure of corporations to act as the source of technological innovation and organizational creativity. If higher education were to seek to produce graduates who could cope adequately with such problems, it would have to reverse the organizational trends of which it is most proud, namely departmentalization, specialization, and academic professionalization.

While once it was the broadly and liberally trained educator who seemed to inhabit an ivory tower, today it is the superspecialist in fields ranging from economics to psychology to physics who is most out of touch with reality. While contemporary work-place problems are ignorant of the departmental structures of universities, today's over-specialized scholar is blissfully unaware of what his or her colleagues are up to—even in closely related fields. Indeed, young scholars revel in their provincial ignorance, holding it up as a sign of their "scientific" professionalism. When asked how their work relates to another discipline or to a practical problem, they joyously declare, "Who cares?"

Perhaps the common complaint of employers that college graduates are oblivious to the realities of workaday life stems from the fact that graduates have spent four years under the tutelage of idiots savants. The graduates, like their professors, have not been informed that the problems people encounter at work do not come in neat little packages addressed solely to one discipline, or sub-sub field of that discipline. One wonders how the know-nothings and care-nothings of academia can train young people for work—or, to be exact, for any /work other than academic research.

Somehow, amidst all the brouhaha about work relevance, the message has not gotten through to educators that the problems most people face at work are complex, interdependent, and above all have to do with working with people cooperatively and ethically. Most of the really tough problems that people encounter at work are not technical—the computer can be made to solve those. Indeed, the tough questions are not problems at all, if a problem is defined as having a single solution. For there are no solutions to the tough policy and organizational problems of work—there is only a spectrum of alternative responses, some more appropriate than others, but none that are simply either right or wrong. Significantly, it is problems of this nature that have deep precedents in the history of social affairs. It is such problems that a broadly educated, truly enculturated worker is best equipped to handle. (For example, Mortimer Adler constantly amazes business leaders in his Aspen Executive Programs by demonstrating the "relevance" of Greek philosophy to their business problems. Adler, of course, would never use the word "relevance.")

If what I am claiming is right, it is a special shame that trans-disciplinary education is the revolution that never occurred in academia. A major reason why this once-heralded change never came about is that professors would themselves have to be broadly educated to teach such a curriculum. And most American educators have not been so prepared for over a quarter of a century.

In conclusion, the facile solution to improving the fit between higher education and work has been to intensify the very specialization that is at the root of much that is wrong in the nation's productive enterprises. A more appropriate response on the part of higher education would be to separate undergraduate education from both specialized research and professional education—which should be graduate functions. It goes without saying that research needs to be done, and to be done well. And professional education needs to be done, and to be done well. But these activities should be separated from humanizing, enculturating, general educations, the kinds of educations all workers will need in what I suspect will be an increasingly complex, democratic, and morally confusing work place of the future.


Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 81 Number 1, 1979, p. 5-21
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 1029, Date Accessed: 11/26/2021 6:35:06 PM

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