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Back to School…

School has an odd effect upon the seasons.

While summer may not truly end until the autumnal equinox, in late September, the start of the school year often seems like an official declaration that the summer is over. Granted, this is largely a result of the way that summer – at least for some – has become synonymous with “vacation” and the resumption of school therefore represents getting back to work. Even if this work consists of being a student. It is a time filled with a measure of understandable nervousness as younger students brace themselves for more homework, as middle school students pray the year will not be too awkward, as high school students try to catch sight of the end of their public school days, and as college students fret over their ever increasing mountains of student debt.

And lurking somewhere behind all of these concerns is a truly anxiety inducing question: what kind of future awaits these students?

It is a question that may not bother many of the students. Indeed, insofar as that question is even raised for most students it is done in such a way as to encourage their confidence and support. Though it may not often be stated in exactly these terms school presents students with a sort of agreement that appears to have a rather logical structure: if you go to school and apply yourself you will be able to go to college, wherein, if you once more apply yourself you will be able to get a decent job. Though it might be fair to add a contemporary coda to the above which reads that: if you apply yourself in college you will be able to go to graduate school, wherein, if you once more apply yourself you will now be able to actually get a decent job. Warnings about slacking off, about skipping classes, about dropping out, often appear in a context that seems to refer back to this agreement – as such actions are treated as though they represent a breaking of the aforementioned agreement and thus to engage in any of these unsupported activities puts the promised reward in jeopardy. And though school may ostensibly be about learning and education, such high-minded touting of the importance of education often seems like little more than a thin veneer over the oft repeated belief: go to school so you can get a decent job.

This is a belief that many people seem to subconsciously accept – and it manifests itself whenever underemployment is presented as a case of “you should’ve gone to school” or when unemployment is presented as a case of “you should’ve studied something employable.” And yet, as the school year begins, it seems worth pausing to consider to what degree the assumed agreement of schooling has broken down, and moreover it seems important to consider – to return to the earlier question – what kind of future awaits the students in today’s classrooms?

All times are uncertain. All times have been uncertain. But we are alive in these times and if they seem particularly uncertain to us then we can be forgiven our self-centeredness as we do not yet have the luxury of looking upon these times with the wisdom of hindsight. And though we may recognize that our times are not uniquely uncertain, there are several features about the present (and the projections of the not too distant future) that provide us with ample reason to feel discomforted. An obvious source of worry is the way in which schools seem to have become little more than warehouses wherein students are trained to score highly on tests, so that they may find themselves in a situation wherein, if they are lucky, they will be allowed to bind themselves into debt peonage for the sake of earning a college degree. But there are other important concerns beyond this. One need not search the news particularly long to find stories declaring that “career field A” will soon be made superfluous thanks to advances in technologyand while people were once counseled to protect themselves from automation by pursuing more education, in the present it seems that those jobs are also at risk. And beyond the matter of employment, one also does not need to look for particularly long to find stories written with increasingly mournful urgency, stating that our planet’s future is looking rather grim. Indeed, if a person is looking for a woebegone sort of schadenfreude, the news about the state of education and employment looks downright chipper when compared to the latest round of reports from climate scientists.

The intention here is by no means to wallow in doom saying, nor for that matter is it (by any means) to doubt the importance of education. The question is instead to ask to what degree our present regimes of schooling are simply preparing students for a future that will not exist. And this is a future of uncertainty for today’s students regardless of whether or not they “played by the rules” or picked a major that seemed employable. At the close of World War II, reeling from the horror of the war itself and of the nihilism of nuclear weapons, Lewis Mumford observed:

“In the race between education and catastrophe, which Mr. H.G. Wells pointed out long ago, we can already see the finish line. And at the moment, catastrophe is in the lead.” (Mumford, 82)

The catastrophe to which Mumford was referring was the possibility of a nuclear war and the annihilation that would bring. But in the present the catastrophic danger has less to do with a willful act to drop a bomb and more to do with an uncountable number of individual choices whereby the most dire predictions regarding climate change seem ever more likely. In this context – of technologically eliminated job fields and planetary instability – what becomes the purpose of schooling? What world are today’s students being prepared to live in once they graduate? What world will await them after they graduate? These are questions that students would do well to ask themselves, but they are also questions that parents and educators have a responsibility to ask of themselves. Not because the answers are easy, but precisely because the same old answer of “just go to school so you can get a job” appears increasingly farcical in light of the present situation.

Nearly two decades ago, Neil Postman wrote:

“at its best, schooling can be about how to make a life, which is quite different from how to make a living.” (Postman, x)

And as the school year begins again this is the type of line that it is important to bear in mind. One should not lose track of Mumford’s catastrophic prediction – unpleasant though it may be – but one should mull over Postman’s evocation of school “at its best.” At present much of what school presents has to do with “how to make a living,” now more than ever is a time for those in all levels of education to consider what it would mean if school focused instead on “how to make a life.”

Works Cited

Postman, Neil. The End of Education: Redefining the Value of School. New York: Vintage Books, 1995.

Mumford, Lewis. “Program for Survival” in Values for Survival. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1946.


About Z.M.L

“I do not believe that things will turn out well, but the idea that they might is of decisive importance.” – Max Horkheimer @libshipwreck

2 comments on “Back to School…

  1. Michael Leddy
    September 3, 2015

    I’m cheered to see the distinction between making a living and making a life. I heard it in 1974 at my college-freshman orientation, from an old Jesuit (name forgotten if ever known): “You are not here to learn how to make a living. You are here to learn how to make a life.” I often cited those words in my own teaching. Could anyone get away with saying them at a present-day orientation?

  2. Pingback: Back to school…with much to learn… | LibrarianShipwreck

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This entry was posted on September 3, 2015 by in Academia, Education, Ethics, Higher Education, Impending Doom, K-12, Society, Students, Teachers, Teaching and tagged , .

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