What the state must learn about higher education

The core issue in today’s education may be the miasma of sanctity that surrounds the concept, says Colby Cosh

Class dismissed

Photograph by Jessica Darmanin

When you join a national newspaper or magazine as a writer, you start getting a lot more email from three kinds of people: PR folks, the insane and journalism students. Over the past decade I must have had 30 or 40 appeals for help, interviews, or extensive advice from J-schoolers. More famous colleagues must be well into the hundreds. This seems pretty paradoxical, from a labour-market standpoint. Although Maclean’s is a happy exception, the overall enterprise of journalism is shrinking, not growing. At least it is if we’re talking about paid journalism. This goes double for paid print journalism, and triple for paid print general-interest journalism.

If I were to drop dead tomorrow, the column inches I left behind could be filled pretty easily, perhaps by a cat trained to walk across a keyboard. But the journalism students who want to know about my career path and trade secrets are not idlers. They are people who have already invested heavily in training and effort to take my job, or one like it. This is puzzling, not only because I have only the one job for dozens to fight over gladiator-style, but because I never bothered with any of this training myself. Nor did many of the people who haunt, or even boss, big Canadian news institutions.

This cannot help but create an impression of perverted incentives, even mass charlatanry, in the education system. New journalism programs are still being founded all the time at the community college level, as if big cities still had four morning papers apiece and the busy reader had a choice of dozens of weeklies and newsmagazines to suit their political and stylistic affiliations. The sincere journalism student may believe he is the one among dozens who will prosper in a world of cheap commentary and semi-automated newsgathering. Most will probably turn out to have been deluded. Some probably sense this, and are co-operating with an educational institution to put one over on a gullible parent. Others know they are sponging off an equally gullible state that subsidizes delayed entry into the workforce.

The problem involves the collision of many economic, demographic and cultural forces: everything from the information revolution to the senescence of the baby boomers is relevant. But the core issue in today’s education may be the miasma of sanctity that surrounds the concept. “Education” is the bread and wine of the religion of the liberal Enlightenment, to which we all subscribe. We can never have enough education, and there is no problem, personal or social, that cannot be cured by education. What you get when you turn this ideal into a system, however, is a lot like what you get when you transform articles of Christian faith into the Catholic Church: a powerful, unaccountable apparatus that abuses large numbers of young people.

Eventually the state must learn to treat education the way it handles other items of religious faith: that is, require a minimum adherence to custom, and otherwise leave it as a private matter between oneself, one’s family, and one’s God. But what about the labour market’s need for practical job training? Ah, that’s another thing entirely, having nothing inherent to do with “education” in its idealistic or spiritual aspect. And what about the role of the state in creating systems of professional credentials—particularly in fields related closely to other state activity, like criminal and civil law? You will notice that this is a third thing, itself quite distinct from “training” and “education.”

As it stands, we are trying to run an expensive, regimented system that handles demand for three different species of widget. All the widgets are wonderful but they do not necessarily fit together. It’s like trying to make shoes, macaroni and antifreeze in the same factory. Having different words for different concepts is useful, and partitioning schooling into education, job training and credentialing helps us see that the natural role of government in each is different.

Which might be a clue to our problems. Job training is something that should be handled, or at least led, by those who need workers, if only because they know best what kind of worker they need. Credentialing and certifying professional guilds to protect the public might be important, but it ought to be limited lest it become a conspiracy against the public in protection’s name. As for the “educational” business of making wiser people, let that take care of itself.

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