Workforce development is a big buzzword in education. We should, business and government leaders insist, invest education dollars in training workers for the marketplace, so that they may grow our economy, our nation, and our way of life.
Oh, and also grow their pocketbooks. It’s no coincidence that many proponents of workforce development are executives.
We have talked about the origins of education, as responses to authority and power. Historically education was designed to produce what the king and clergy wanted: unflinching soldiers for the slaughter, dutiful workers for the fields, and unquestioning priests for the church.
A mindless, obedient hierarchy.
If you think about it, even today this is what dictators such as Kim Jung Un want from artisans, officers and engineers: blind obedience. It is exactly what Stalin, Mao, and yes, even Adolf wanted. Mindless minions.
Executives who argue for workforce development would doubtless find these connections offensive. My response is simple:
When have they ever argued for more?
When has anyone advocating workforce development in education ever said that we also need to teach children to think, and to have full, happy, and self-directed lives? What proponent of workforce development talks about fully empowered employees, or autonomous, critically thinking citizens?
The fact is, anyone who is working for these larger educational goals isn’t focusing on workforce development.
Management will object by pointing out that they aggressively recruit critical thinkers, they desperately need researchers, designers, and problem-solvers, they need broadly educated workers who can think, analyze, and discuss issues the facing the corporation.
That’s the critical phrase: they want people who can think about the issues facing the corporation. Because what the executive doesn’t want is exactly what Kim Jung Un doesn’t want: people who think about anything other than the issues that the leadership assigns. At some level, every executive knows that well-educated, fully independent-minded people ask questions, they raise objections, they challenge authority.
And if there is a very large problem that the leadership refuses to address, they sometimes blow whistles.
That is the great paradox here: we all know that without critical thinkers in the corporation or bureaucracy, progress stalls. If no one criticizes the processes, we never correct the problems. So everyone needs these critical thinkers in the marketplace.
But every executive wants them elsewhere in the marketplace.
It is the tension inherent between freedom and authority, it is the continuation of the struggle that began in 1776. Without critical feedback, the free market and democracy do not respond, adapt, and grow. But that feedback, that freedom, also threaten power, they threaten authority.
So those in power want workforce development, and only workforce development. It’s a form of intellectual abuse: it is an attempt to thwart the intellectual development of our children, in order to subjugate them to authority.
The problem is that public education is paid for by all of us, not the powerful, and few of us are interested in funding ever-larger executive bonuses. Our interest is in raising our children to be better thinkers and better people. And the democracy requires that they become better citizens.
To be sure, the citizen must be able to hold down a job. But that falls far short of what the democracy demands, and what we desire: the citizen must also stay informed of the issues, vote in elections, volunteer in the community, and raise their own healthy, happy and responsible children. And in all of it, it is the fundamental responsibility of the citizen to ask hard questions about who we are, and where we are going: as a nation, and as everyday people.
Clearly, workforce development only addresses the first one.
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Chinese Honor Guard courtesy of Wikimedia.