JITE v39n1 - The 1990s
David C. Bjorkquist
University of Minnesota
Today, although we find ourselves in the midst of increasingly accurate projections about the workplace, schools are in a more muddled situation than they were at the time of Arthur G. Wirth's (1994) writing. Wirth's article, selected for this special issue of the Journal , entitled "An Emerging Perspective of Policies for American Work and Education for the Year 2000: Choices We Face" provides a touchstone for examining many of the facets that we are currently experiencing.
Wirth described the post-industrial revolution as a social transformation. With the benefit of having lived the events, it is possible to see how far reaching the transformation in our daily lives has become. Everyday technology has made news instantaneous, shrunk the size of the world, and diminished privacy. Institutions as diverse as churches and taverns have had to adjust to these influences, as well as to the migration of people from the countryside and inner cities to places with potential for better employment.
Documented by Wirth (1994) and continuing today is the widening gap in earnings of those who work. This earnings gap typically correlates with gender, race, and education level. The lack of understanding about earning differences may well be aggravated by a chasm in knowledge of how others in our society live. The working poor, for example, often are out of sight of those who are paid best because they live and work in different places and have less desirable working hours that do not overlap with the times most others work.
Social transformation cannot be mentioned without recognizing the influx of immigrants and the internationalizing of the economy. New immigrants represent employees for some, and competition for jobs to others. They also enrich our culture, bringing their talents and values and sometimes challenging our opinions of what is good or right
Interestingly, the skills of craft occupations are still needed. Not every human ability has been digitized. Job requirements have changed, but the presence or absence of skilled workers in such fields as construction and manufacturing have altered the plans of some firms. Some employers who discounted the role of the schools in preparing individuals for job entry were quick to wonder why there were not more graduates available to fill their job vacancies. The stigma, perhaps growing, that has been associated with skilled trade jobs seems to be deeply rooted in our society and is often fed by political ideologies that would deny worker concerns for such basics as wages, safety, and favorable employment conditions. Some workers have found that their talents have made them highly mobile and some have chosen contingent or contract employment as their preferred mode.
The muddled state of education cannot be laid fairly at the doorstep of educators. At least one governor has described education as a "black hole" into which enough money can never be poured to satisfy educators. Nationally, the level of lip service paid to education greatly exceeds the level of resources provided. For example, efforts to meet teacher shortages fall very short of filling the gaps and are meager by comparison with similar efforts in many other fields of employment.
There has been a growing mistrust of public schools and a resulting decrease in support, both financial and emotional. Home schooling, charter schools, and private schools are offered as alternatives. Private schools of the past were most often parochial, with a clear purpose of teaching in the context of a particular religious interpretation. In the 1990s, patrons of private schools were encouraged in their choice by political promises of financial vouchers, which ultimately bleed resources from the public schools. Choice among schools is argued to be fair and competitive, and therefore good for the public schools. Incidentally, technological education is not one of the strong emphases in most of the educational alternatives offered.
The mistrust of public education is further demonstrated by what is often called "school accountability," with testing of students and teachers the common method of implementation. Unfortunately, the end result, in the interest of reliable measurement, is, all too often, trivialization of learning. Skills gained by students who engage in unique experiences in the community and in problem identification and solving are not easily measured by standardized tests. Nor are the personal insights derived from these experiences. All too many students, and perhaps teachers, have already learned that in the school setting grades are more important than knowledge. Much of what has been proposed and implemented further entrenches the separation of the school from the workplace, home, and community. This is hardly consistent with the philosophy shared by Dewey and Wirth.
Dewey envisioned technical education as more than the learning of job skills. Curricula that prepare students to be human capital for the needs of employers miss the context within which Dewey would have that learning occur. The importance of this concept is intensified in the present labor market. No longer is it possible for employers to provide assurances of lifetime employment, or for them to insist on unyielding loyalty from their employees. Some employers, realizing the turbulence of market, are helping their employees learn how to plan and manage their own careers. Learning the skills of a job remains important but should provide a platform for learning the more important skills of considering life goals, perhaps in a holistic fashion that includes the place of family and community as well as employment.
As you reread Arthur Wirth's article, reflect on some of your experience with the present social transformation. Which changes are for the better and which should be challenged? Have extraordinary events of the past become ordinary?
Bjorkquist is Professor Emeritus at the University of Minnesota. He served as editor of the Journal from 1970-1973, and continues to serve as a manuscript reviewer.