Education for What? A Very Good Question

June 15, 1998

Book Review
Philip J. Davis

Education for What? The New Office Economy. By Anthony P. Carnevale and Stephen J. Rose, Educational Testing Service, Princeton, New Jersey, 1998. Executive Summary.

I had heard that reviews of this study appeared both in The New York Times and in The Wall Street Journal. I did not realize that when I asked ETS for a copy, what they would send me was a 36-page executive summary of a longer report. I wondered whether to review a summary that consists of 15 major bullets plus statistical breakdowns plus assorted comments and caveats. (The bullets would by themselves constitute an executive summary of the executive summary.) Wouldn't this be like a literary critic reviewing an executive summary of Hamlet? Well, ETS released it, and they'll have to take their chances.

Although the title asks about "education," this report gave me the overwhelming feeling that its bottom line is money; not skills, not knowledge, not insight, not job satisfaction, not lots of other things that are associated with education. The authors categorize jobs; in order of decreasing pay-elite jobs/good jobs/less skilled jobs. They assert that

"The much-ballyhooed demand for 'technical' skills is overstated. Such skills are a significant, but small, part of the economy. The major fields of high-earning, college educated workers are located in business offices---e.g., managers, sales representatives, brokers, and accountants."

"Technology is important," they note, "but management of technology is even more important." (For "important," I would suppose one should read "lucrative.")

Well, why shouldn't the report stress money? The authors are economists, ETS is a very big business that battens on education, and the authors assert that Calvin Coolidge's "the business of America is business" is far more true now than it was in 1925.

I doubt that readers of SIAM News will be greatly surprised by the main conclusions of this study:

"Conventional wisdom has always viewed the American economy as a pyramid with a broad, solid base of jobs in manufacturing, construction, and natural resources; where productivity is high, which supports an array of medical, personal, and financial services at the top.

In fact, the opposite has come true. The old industrial pyramid has been turned upside down. In the new economy, workers employed in a wide variety of office functions, from marketing to managing and consulting, are driving value added by reinventing, reorganizing, and rationalizing old industrial, natural resource, and service industries.

Science and invention win prizes, but they are not where the real action is. Making the product and delivering the service have become a simple parlor trick in the global economy---it can be done with equal ease in Chicago or Bangladesh."

The report then, and the study behind it, hopes to sound a wake-up bell for "scholars, public and private decision makers, educators, and trainers" to think through what may be the implications of this radical shift from production to management. Given this projected vast office-ization of the U.S. (call it "clericalization" if you prefer, but remember that the term now refers to "planning, managing, and coordinating," and not filing, shorthand, or typing), and given the rapid changes in computerization, what should colleges be teaching?

Let's look at the problem historically. During the Depression years, plenty of college graduates, from the Ivies even, particularly women, ended up as stenographers and typists, and they were thankful that various New Deal programs provided work for them. Mathematicians, artists, actors, were employed on WPA projects. What, in those years, was college education for?

And now, once again, as in the Depression, but with cyberspin added, the unofficial, unadmitted role of the colleges seems to be to supply warm, adapted, and technofriendly bodies for the office.

Years ago, when I worked for the government, I used to say to myself: Gosh, the government is so big and is increasing because college education has become much more available. The colleges (all over the world) pour out an oversupply of people trained to think and act in certain ways, and it's a very good thing the government is there to absorb such people decently.

And then, not wanting to think of my personal skills as being patronized (WPA-ized?), I would turn the order of causation around: The government is big for historic reasons; it's a big country, and it's a very good thing that the university is there to supply its needs.

Whichever way you see it, the chicken or the egg, one thing is certain: The colleges (until recently, at least), with whatever curriculum they offered and with whatever inner motives they fostered, have been very successful in supplying office workers. Does it make any difference, then, whether students study matrix theory, animal cognition, the history of feminism in Southeast Asia, Latin, modern political thought, the symphony from Haydn to Mahler, or the Eurocentric hegemony? The results seem to be the same: College grads make good office workers and will on average make more money than nongrads.

At the moment the role of the university seems to be moving away from the vocational to the social. Among its goals: to allow young people to mature and to find their intellectual interests, to find mates, to find things to keep their minds alive after retirement. One role American universities now play, consciously abandoning older core curricula in doing so, is to teach us how to live amicably with our neighbors, who may look different, dress differently, think differently, and act differently. In this direction, the revolutionary spirit of young people, out to change the world either by creating it mathematically or by reacting negatively toward such creations, is given fairly free rein.

Why bother then to teach formal courses in teamwork, networking, promotion, and management-the perceived requirements for the new office jobs---when the present college experience seems to impart these things to students implicitly?

But let's take another look at the ETS study's income categorization. Suppose I were to say that the split of jobs into elite/good/less skilled categories is too coarse. Let me add a fourth and a fifth category on top of the elite. Call these new categories the "super-elite" and the "real money." The super-elite category would start at the point where the rich are getting richer, with those below either holding their own or getting poorer. Say, a salary of $250,000 per annum. The fifth category, the real money, might begin at about $5,000,000 per annum.

The recent wild growth of mega-lotteries displays the extent to which all of us want to get into the real money. Power Ball winners are approaching real money but are not quite there yet. If the mania persists, they will come into it. Bright young things in Silicon Valley wave start-up ideas in front of their more experienced financial elders, ask for real money, and often get it.

To get a feeling for what real money implies, consider that the difference, as reported by the authors, between the average 1995 elite job and the average good job is $58,600 - $35,800 = $22,800. This amounts to less than half of 1% of the lowest earnings in the real money category-peanuts or roundoff. Viewed from the heights, the difference in the lower categories is hardly worth talking about. Or, as I used to hear from managers, "If we really need a technologist, we can hire one for $1.98." Moreover, if, as the report indicates, "students and parents are demanding to know how they are going to put their learning to work," let us not defer their education to MBA years, but rather sock it to them as soon as they get out of high school. Some colleges have already done so. The New York Times of March 29, 1998, reports that the University of Northern Colorado is training students by having them manage about 1% of its endowment portfolio.

With the making of real money as an educational goal, it's an easy step from real portfolio management (not just funny money management) as part of a curriculum to the introduction of courses like Predation, Advanced Predation, Elements of Acting and Dissimulation, Corporate Networking, Surfing the Frontiers of Legality, High-level Personnel Manipulation, Creative Downsizing, Start-ups from Zilch, Golden Umbrella Theory, Resourceful Bankruptcy Management.

Why not? After all, neurotic competitiveness-which may be an important component of real money acquisition-can and has been inculcated unconsciously at certain colleges. Think what might be done with a formal course or two on the topic. The reader may object that what leads to real money is not education, and may cite many names, now in the newspapers daily, as shining examples of the non-necessity of finishing college. Real money cannot be taught; it takes genius, genes, the right toilet training, an ambitious spouse (or two), or maybe just plain dumb luck---all of which are beyond course content.

Enough fantasizing.

We may also ask whether the clericalization is good for us. Is the U.S. left vulnerable if all our shoes come from Southeast Asia instead of from Brockton, Massachusetts, and all our strawberries from the Caribbean instead of from the Fifty States? Is every man, woman, and child in the nation (with the exception of a saving remnant of neo-Thoreauvians and CEOs) slated to become a mouse-clicker? What happens to the social structures and gasoline consumption when (or if) offices are fractalized into thousands or millions of networked home offices? How long will it take until the U.S. moves into a post-postmanufacturing period?

The authors themselves admit that the future may not be all beer and skittles. They point out that "the office economy seems to encourage growing earnings inequality," that unions face "a significant challenge in trying to organize this new breed of workers," that the drive to efficiency may make us shout to the high heavens for relief (cf. recent practices of the HMOs dictated not by physicians but by pencil pushers in insurance companies), and that the new stratification of the labor force la Huxley's Brave New World results in slave-like rigidities (my adjective) in which individualism, severely kicked in the pants by the early industrial revolution, is now given a final hi-tech boot out the window.

The report under review accepts the inevitability of steadily increasing clericalization. How should mathematics educators respond? Given that this trend coincides with increasing mathematization in the physical, social, and economic spheres, we need, in my view, to get students to think critically about what has been put in place, and to consider it not as mere technique, nor as ordained by nature or by a deity, but as inserted by the fiat of human consultants.

Critical education would identify and describe the mathematical beliefs, constructions, and practices that are now in place in day-to-day life.

Critical education would accustom the student to consider a proposed system and to consider what that system might mean both positively and negatively in terms of our future lives.

Critical education would describe those beliefs, constructs, and practices that have been justified by the community; students would arrive at their own judgments as to those that are justifiable and those that are not. Critical education would examine the modes of justification that are employed.

Critical education is not easy to achieve. Some teachers here and abroad, both in high school and college, are attempting it. I wish it were more widespread.

Philip J. Davis, professor emeritus of applied mathematics at Brown University, is an independent writer, scholar, and lecturer. He lives in Providence, Rhode Island.

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