Reinventing The High School

There is not much we agree upon these days, except that more and more people should go to college. This has become the self-evident truth of the late Twentieth century, and achieved the status of a divine revealation in the twentyfirst. Contrarian views, voiced from time to time by a few elitist conservatives, who believe college, along with the privileges to govern in perpetuity, should be preserved for a small group of people, look dated and out of place even among the political right. Countries speak of knowledge economy and equate it to the size of college-educated population. Technologists speak of automation and artificial intelligence and see college education essential for producing, consuming and living in the world they wish to make. Economists speak of productivity and equate it to the level of education. Everyone everywhere seems to think more college would mean more progress and well-being.

This, without any real evidence! College, historically, has been a system of manufacturing privilege, a part of the system of symbols that the governing classes govern with. The out-of-date observations of the elitists, therefore, have a ring of truth about it. The expansion of college has been a cruel joke to many - deferring the Labour force participation and leading to acquistion of useless knowledge - and developing countries, buying ideas unquestioningly from their erstwhile colonial masters, often went down this dead-end road of skullduggery. The college fetish has created a huge population of uselessly educated, unemployable population, 

I can anticipate people jumping in defence and explain how great universities make great countries, but no one is discussing Research Universities here. Indeed, they have a function, but the claim that more than half of young people of a country should go to institutions to do advance research is the modern equivalent of tulip mania. And, then, there is that great deception of 'college premium': It discounts the college-educated who doesn't find employment, and plays a game of averages where a few big earners crowd out everything else. These claims are not just wrong - they are harmful! They can undermine the productive capacities, particularly of a young, developing country, such as India or the nations of Africa, by subverting the priorities and let the State subsidise wrong kind of education, which, rather conveniently, benefit a narrow elite at the expense of everyone else.

There is one aspect of this wrong model that I want to write about, and that is the de-emphasisation of High School. Originally conceived as a preparatory stage for young people to enter productive work, High School in its modern version has become merely preparation for college. For a young and emerging economy, where college is not free and deferment of work is not an option for many people, High School is where social divergences play out in the earnest. This is where the apparently democratic claim of universal college shows itself in its true elitist fervour, by separating those who could afford special preparation from those who can't.

But, apart from the private tragedies, there is a public cost. The academic studies that 'mass' Higher Education offers in these countries - obsolete curriculum, unprepared teachers, minimal infrastructure - represents a colossal waste of time and money: Never before, I shall claim, had so many done so little over such a long period of time. Apart from the waste of public money, it is not just the deferment of work participation: It is also about wrong attitudes, wrong expectations and a misplaced sense of entitlement which has to be dealt with.

What's the solution? I am not advocating denying anyone college, as I am as aware as anyone who would really be denied if such a monstrous proposition comes into play. What I propose instead is a reinvention of High School, an acknowledgement that this is not a mere appendage of the college but a valuable preparation for entering into workforce. This plan needs to have several interconnected elements: Recasting of existing High School infrastructure, reinvention of High School curricula in line with the modern labour market, compulsory engagement with employers and social work at High School, acceptance of High School diplomas for a number of jobs and lastly, Expansion, rather than reduction, of college options allowing the employed and mid-career people pursue college as and when they think fit.

I am aware that just the opposite happens in developing countries. The High School is reduced to the point of irrelevance, governments suffer from college fetish, useless colleges abound and yet, options of distance learning and college credit are tightly regulated. The story here is one of misplaced assumption of copying the Western models and western rhetoric without critical thought and contextualisation. India's recent emphasis on Skills Education somewhat recognises this point, but descends into an outdated binary of education or skills conundrum. This is because High School falls within the Education box, and the government went on to create a parallel infrastructure, at a great cost and with a good deal of corruption, and built a system few people wanted to use. It did not discard its college fetish, and kept sending young middle class boys to dead-end careers and fast-disappearing jobs. No wonder India is facing a job crisis for the college educated, while at the same time, its skills training centres struggle to fill their seats. 

I have written about this in the past (see here) and looking to direct my Education-to-Employment work more to the High School segment going forward. I am already keenly aware that High School is not meant to be anything else but a time of prolonged suspension, years of anticipation for the college, of no value to itself. This is the barrier my work will be up against: To create meaning where none is sought, to create value in itself. But, I have always worked on things that I thought meaningful, and I am convinced that this is the most meaningful work I have found yet.




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