Wednesday, April 21, 2021

I Will Not Prepare Children for The "Jobs of Tomorrow"

I've spent most of my professional career railing against the widely held belief that our schools exist for the purpose of vocational training. Those "jobs of tomorrow" our policymakers are always going on about? "Out educating the Chinese?" Getting the kids "college and career ready?" What a crock. First of all, no one knows what those jobs of tomorrow might be, no matter how authoritatively they speak of the future. The jobs that today's five-year-olds will be applying for 20 years from now are unimaginable to us. Indeed, it will be the children of today who invent the jobs of tomorrow. And this has always been true, going back at least to the Industrial Revolution when policymakers were certain that we would all move to the cities to take our place along an assembly line. My own high school career counselor got it wrong. Most of the jobs our daughter is applying for today didn't exist when she was a preschooler. As for competing with the Chinese, that's a dubious and mercenary adult concern, one that is a cruelty when inflicted on innocent children.

No, the proper "career" aspiration for a preschooler is princess. 

The role of education (not necessarily school) in a self-governing society is to produce good citizens, critical thinkers who are equipped for their highest calling in a democracy: the pursuit of happiness. Which is to say, achieving their highest potential, whether or not that helps economic interests compete with the Chinese.

But, let's take them at their word for a moment and stipulate to the goal of preparing children for a life of serving the economy. One of their arguments is that the pursuit of economic advantage is central to the pursuit of happiness. After all, how happy can you be if you're impoverished? Of course, if that's true, then we must ask why are so few of us are happy at work? A major study of a quarter of a million people from 142 countries reveals that only 13 percent of us actually feel "engaged" at work. That means 87 percent of us are just going through the motions. Our jobs are mere means to an end. We would rather be somewhere else, doing something else. This is not a problem with people. It's a problem with the jobs and an educational system that is tasked with getting them ready for those jobs. 

Other surveys have shown that most children grow increasingly disengaged from school the closer they get to being "college and career ready." So, by that measure, I guess we could say our educational system is doing a bang up job of getting the kids ready for their grim future, but is it one we would wish upon them? It seems to me that a life of disengagement is no life at all.

My goal as an educator is a fully engaged child, one who spends their days in self-selected pursuits, following their curiosity, inventing, creating, and discovering. I want them to grow up to be the kinds of creative thinkers who have the skills and habits required to play a meaningful part in, not the economy, but the project of self-governance. I want them to know it is not just their right, but their responsibility to question, even challenge authority. I want them to stand up for their beliefs. I want them to think for themselves, to create their own path, to, in a nutshell, pursue their own happiness while allowing others to pursue theirs. That is clearly not the goal of our educational system writ large.

The skills of a good citizen are, in fact, the exact opposite of those required to be gainfully employed in a "job." Indeed, thinking for yourself, challenging authority, and standing up for your beliefs will generally get you fired . . . 

Unless, of course, you work for yourself.

The traits required for self-governance are exactly the traits needed to be a successful entrepreneur. And by "successful" I mean "happy." A full 94 percent of small business owners report that they are happy with their lives. What a contrast to those who are working the jobs of today that were once those jobs of tomorrow. 

If I have to prepare children for their economic future, it sure won't be for those mythical jobs of tomorrow. I will not prepare them for a life of disengagement. But I will do everything I can to prepare them for self-employment, for entrepreneurship. It's just a happy accident that doing so is the same process as preparing them for self-governance. No one can promise happiness, but that's not the point. It's the pursuit that engages us. It's the pursuit that makes life worth living, and that is what a real education is all about.


Mark your calendar! If you're interested in who to set children free, Teacher Tom's Play Summit is online, free, and takes place June 21-25. To learn more and to get on the waitlist, click here! I'm excited about this line-up, including Akilah Richards, Peter Gray, Lisa Murphy, Maggie Dent, and the one and only Raffi! But I'm mostly excited about all of us coming together, for children, to turn this world around.

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