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Ryan Fullerton: Education and job training are not the same thing; we need to help young people understand that (Column)

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It’s the frustrating question every educator has heard countless times: “When am I ever going to use this?” Regardless of subject, regardless of grade, students want to know: how will what they learn in school today ever matter?

It’s a fair question, too, but it comes with unspoken subtext, an implication that sits behind the question every time it is asked: When am I ever going to use this in my job

This messaging to students comes from the very top of the education field.

On Dec. 16, Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona tweeted, “Every student should have access to an education that aligns with industry demands and evolves to meet the demands of tomorrow’s global workforce.” The Kansas State Department of Education now expects schools to help students develop Individual Plans of Study (IPS) beginning in eighth grade; according to KSDE’s IPS Digital Reference Guide, a student’s IPS must include “a graduated series of strength finders and career interest inventories to help students identify preference toward career clusters.” These preferences can then be used to select high school courses and guide postsecondary plans beginning in middle school.

Students have certainly absorbed this messaging. When I recently asked a former student what he considered to be the purpose of education, he replied, “From what I have been told by most of my teachers, the purpose of education is to prepare you for a job.” This is unsurprising, given that his school district prides itself on its mission to have all students graduate with the “knowledge, skills, and behaviors to hold life-sustaining employment.” That student went on to acknowledge his belief that “it’s annoying and could cause damage to how people see things,” but experience suggests that most students do not question this view of either school or education at large. Instead, due to a combination of messaging from both their families and their schools, there is one outcome in their minds: a job.

To be clear, employment is certainly an outcome of education. I am no exception to this; I completed an undergraduate degree in education for the purpose of becoming an educator. It is also not necessarily true that all Americans believe the purpose of education is to prepare for employment. However, we limit the scope of what education can and should be when the lens of capitalism obscures our conceptualizations. 

Beyond the workplace, education offers the chance to see the world and oneself in ways that might otherwise be impossible. It serves a critical humanist purpose. Through years of the absorption of ideas; the construction of knowledge and meaning; the exposure to experiences different from one’s own experiences, values, and beliefs; and the critical analysis of the world as they know it, individuals question, challenge, and reinvent their own worldviews and identities.

The memoirist Tara Westover knows perhaps better than most the tremendous humanist power of education. In her acclaimed 2018 work, “Educated,” Westover tracked her life from a survivalist Idaho childhood in which her parents kept her out of public school to the completion of her Ph.D. in 2014.

As she documented a final clash with her disapproving father, Westover wrote, “Everything I had worked for, all my years of study, had been to purchase for myself this one privilege: to see and experience more truths than those given to me by my father, and to use those truths to construct my own mind. I had come to believe that the ability to evaluate many ideas, many histories, many points of view, was at the heart of what it means to create one’s self.”

Those self-actualized individuals possess the tools to question, challenge, and improve the society around them, and for this reason, the appeal of the employment-centered view of education is not shocking. Families and communities understandably want their children to achieve employment that allows them to support themselves independently. But this view is also safe, a shield of the status quo; when education is understood as empowering, as an act of self-construction, and as an act by which social change can be mobilized, it becomes dangerous to the current order.

As the curriculum theorist James Macdonald wrote, “Any person concerned with curriculum must realize that he/she is engaged in a political activity. Curriculum talk and work are, in microcosm, a legislative function. We are concerned with the goal of creating the good life, the good society, and the good person.” 

This must be the mission of education. This must be what we help students understand about the value of what they do.

Education is for more than the future; it is for the here and now, too. Young people deserve the chance to understand the world around them beyond the confines of the work they may one day choose to do. They deserve the chance to consider options beyond the career clusters that interest them in late middle school. They deserve the chance to question that world and critique it, even the most sacred of traditions they have been directed to accept. They deserve the chance to improve the society that will not just belong to them in the future but that belongs to them now. And they deserve the chance to discover and define for themselves who they are, in both heart and mind.

— Ryan T. Fullerton (he/him) lives in Lawrence and is a middle school social studies teacher and department chair in Ottawa. He is an Ed.D. student in curriculum and instruction at the University of Kansas, where he also completed a Master of Arts in history and undergraduate degrees in both history and secondary education.

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