Elizabeth Losh of University of California San Diego contends that it is a mistake to view education as a product and not as a process. But even this is stopping short, because the question, process towards what, also must be asked. Burying ourselves in the process paradigm, powerful as it is, may obscure our inability to find a purpose. Many of today's debates centre around the question - education for what - and not answering this adequately may inevitably lead to this idea of education-as-a-pill.
Indeed, the purpose question can be limiting too. The proposition, education is for an employment, is presented as a self-evident and universal truth all too commonly. While an education-for-employment must undoubtedly have its place in a modern economy, in many ways, this also serves as the key rationale for stripping education from its all other functions, that of joy, discovery and of being, and this is the process element Professor Losh is concerned about. Besides, this is the end not means approach, which may undermine the importance of the means, and cause an irrational stampede towards credentialising, undermining the whole business of education.
Also, the purpose question is not easy to answer. We are well past those days when education provided certainty, theological or class-based. In a secular, post-national world, commercial employment is perhaps the only certainty one could look at - though this may draw one into the vortex of eventual pointlessness we just described. To add to this already existing problem, the shape and scope of commercial employment isn't clear as well: For all purposes and intent, we are building a superstar economy where middle class employment, that most education systems prepare us for as of today, will become significantly limited. As Tyler Cowen or Tom Friedman will tell us,"the average is over".
Also, we have somehow evaded the question of purpose of education, being caught out in the binary of process or product, wherein education is either about the activities but not an end, or the narrow objective of employment of some kind. However, the issues that challenge the definition of purpose of education reaffirm the purpose question in a roundabout way. If the world is becoming more uncertain, the educated are far more prepared to grapple with the uncertainty: This is, in a way, the purpose of education, being able to take the risk, being able to live with it.
No one is celebrating the death of the middle class economy because the pain it brings, but it is best to prepare for it. Middle classes are doomed anyway: If we continue down the road we are on, of globalisation, automation and financialisation, they may not have a place in that brave new world; nor would it exist in the current form, if we are forced to embrace a different order, constrained by social or environmental limits. The way in, surviving the super-class, needs a big risk, of leaping into the world of continuous reinvention. The way out - escaping the consumer ethic and imagining a world of restraint and self-reliance - is also predicated on big risks and departure from the usual. Either way, the uncertainty, about the world outside and choices inside, is key to survival and progress as we go along.
Right now, education is sold as the snake oil that provides certainty. Everyone seems to know that this is bunk, no one wants to question it because that takes away the last iota of false certainty that we live with. I contend that this is almost why we don't want to open the question of purpose of education, and would rather limit ourselves to other limited claims, because engaging in such a topic is a risk.
But education is a risk. As we look to the future, what it meant, at its loftiest, in the past: Education is about overcoming the fear of freedom. It is about getting comfortable with the dislocations and uncertainties that the future will almost certainly impose upon us. Education, in that sense, is not a pill that can make our world comfortable and guarantee us a lifetime of employment; nor is it a process that can keep us relevant and in our place forever. It is a risk that one takes, with oneself, as it shakes up the comfort and all the cozy assumptions we have made or were handed down; it allows us to see the world around us not as a given, but as a dynamic conversation; it makes us leave our spectator's seat and become a player; it makes us resist when resistance is fraught with risks.
This isn't usual or expected, indeed. Education was once the sure way to a middle class life. It was about certainty. But as middle class life, as it was in the industrial times, disappears, clinging to the same formula is pointless. The promise of education - that it leads to a certain kind of life - may be dead now, though the moment of education, as a start-point for engagement with the world one can help shape, has finally arrived.
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