When I was young, I had this idea of education preparing me for a career with established parameters, a kind of ready-made slot, and I really didn’t want to be slotted. “Writer” seemed like a good career, because it fit my aptitude, I admired good writing, and it seemed like a way to avoid getting stuck in other people’s expectations, which seemed a kind of hell to me.
I used to get very irritated with my fellow classmates who’d ask the teacher “How will we use this in the real world?” I saw they lacked imagination, and if they had to ask the question, then they’d forever be dependent on other people. The teacher invariably replied, “It depends what career you pursue.” This answer filled me with vague dread that I didn’t examine too closely. A better, yet still poor, answer would have been “It will give you options in what career to pursue.”
But the bounds of this discussion reflected outmoded thinking. It did not factor in technology.
Why did women’s education and feminism become a major force in the twentieth century? Because women suddenly realized they wanted more autonomy? No. Emphatically not. It happened because technology potentiated it, specifically medical technology that saved the lives of women and children during labor, and preserved the lives of children so that every woman did not have to have half a dozen children for population replacement. Secondarily, but maybe just as important, it was due to the advent of reliable birth control. Without those preconditions, feminism would always be constrained by biology. I don’t wish to debate feminism. I’m just using it as an example of how technology changes society and people’s options.
In the twenty-first century, the reason to pursue education is not to fit a career; it’s to enable you to adapt to an un-guessable future, to see opportunities, and to cobble together your own idiosyncratic career. “Career” is best viewed as an illusion. Everything now is education. You want to be a doctor? Best to consider “doctor” as a kind of educational track rather than a career track. Want to be an engineer? Are we talking about a kind of certification called “engineer” or are we talking about someone educated in certain kinds of engineering, and either way, is it something you get paid for? And art, music, and philosophy may be an indispensable component of that “engineering” education. All disciplines are really different modalities of a unified knowledge. Their separation is another illusion.
Then we have academic (or theoretical) and technical skills. These too are different modalities of the same thing, and I’d argue that if you are not a technician to some extent, creating products of use to other people, then your education is severely impoverished. Academic and technical training divorced from each other is like mouse input and keyboard input divorced from each other, or music theory and intuitive musicianship divorced from each other, or writing and editing divorced from each other: you may become proficient in one mode, but you will be exponentially more powerful if you combine them.
“How will we use this in the real world?” You’re in the real world, right now, even in grade school, high school, or college. There is education that the state pays for, there’s education you pay for, and there’s education you get paid for. That’s it. What kind of education do you want to pursue? The more education of all kinds you get, the more options you’ll have for different types of education later on — that is, the better you’ll be able to answer the question of what kind of education you want to pursue for leading a fulfilling life, which, in a capitalist society at least, will partly involve the issue of getting paid.
Nominally, I have been a writer, editor, programmer, CEO, and technology consultant, but what I really am is educated in a way that lets me move among those roles.
If you want to think about education leading to a job, you’re probably thinking the wrong way. Technology is redefining jobs too fast. For me, this was true even in the eighties, because I did not want to be slotted in a certain career.
But soon it will be true for everyone.