Workplace needs trump academics

Despite increasing attention to preparing students for the workplace, too many courses are still promoted as essential for success when, in fact, they are hard to defend.  I’m thinking now of calculus (“Who Needs Calculus? Not High-Schoolers,” The Wall Street Journal, May 15).

Since the 1980s, the number of high schools teaching calculus has grown dramatically.  For students who intend to major in math, physics, or engineering, calculus is indispensable.  But I wonder if most students would not be better off learning statistics or computer science?  Analyzing data in all their various forms is far more likely to be useful.

The argument against aligning courses with the reality of the workplace is that doing so turns schools into training camps for business.  But students and their parents are entitled to know if what is being studied has relevance.  There is some truth to the claim that it’s impossible to know the answer beforehand.  Yet the cost of going to college today is so exorbitant that few are willing to wait to find out.  They demand to see a direct connection between what they are studying and its marketability.

I remember when Latin was defended as essential.  But time has shown that its benefits were wildly oversold.  Latin is certainly academic, but I think students would be far better off learning Mandarin or Arabic as a foreign language.  It all comes down to its value in the workplace.

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4 Replies to “Workplace needs trump academics”

  1. Several separate albeit related issues. Academic preparation vs. job preparation. Academic preparation vs. life preparation. Academic preparation vs. citizenship preparation. As well as the permutations of these issues.

    Current high school curricula mostly emphasize academic preparation with relatively little job preparation (except in voc-ed programs), life preparation and citizenship preparation.

    Not sure high school — again, other than a voc-ed high school — is the place for job preparation. More efficient to do the job preparation in a post-high-school program — community college, trade school, apprenticeship/internship or specialized four-year college program (i.e., nursing). Doubt that high schools (again, other than voc-ed high schools) have the teachers and/or equipment required for job preparation in anything other than unskilled jobs and even then a high school’s job-relevant equipment will often become obsolete within a few years.

    High school, by contrast, is an excellent place to teach life-preparation skills and citizenship-preparation skills. Compared to job preparation, teaching these skills does not require very specialized or constantly evolving equipment.

    I’d de-emphasize literature, advanced math and foreign language in the high school curriculum and devote the time to teaching life preparation and citizenship preparation — both of which can be taught at varying levels of difficulty and sophistication.


  2. Labor Lawyer: De-emphasizing literature, advanced math and foreign language in high school would shortchange students who intend to get a four-year college degree. That’s why I wish vocational education were given much greater respect. Those students need job skills, which courses, along with apprenticeships, can provide. The trouble is that everyone is urged to go to college even though they lack the aptitude and interest.


    1. Granted that admission to competitive colleges usually requires a high school transcript showing mastery of advanced courses in math, literature and foreign language. However, academic success — as opposed to admission — at even competitive colleges does not require advanced high school courses in these subjects. There is no reason why the students cannot take the advanced courses as college freshmen rather than as high school juniors and seniors. The key, of course, would be convincing/compelling the competitive colleges to revise their admissions criteria to place more emphasis on grades, SAT/ACT scores and extracurricular activities and much less emphasis on the number of advanced math, literature and foreign language courses the applicant took in high school. Anecdotal evidence — my personal experience decades ago as well as the experience of my kids and their friends — suggests that their high school AP courses were not an effective substitute for college courses.

      In any event, I would argue that, for middle/upper-middle-class high school graduates, their academic preparation is adequate or better than adequate while their life preparation and citizenship preparation is woefully inadequate. Birth control, sex ed, parenting, cooking, nutrition, shopping, personal finance (credit cards, loans, mortgages), personal taxes, budgeting, resume-writing, interviewing, basic auto maintenance, basic house maintenance, landlord-tenant issues, public speaking, contracts, Title VII — life preparation knowledge/skills that many/most are lacking even after college. The inadequacy of citizenship preparation is demonstrated by the large numbers of these folk who do not vote or vote with their gut — i.e., the Trump voters. And, by “citizenship preparation”, I don’t mean just “it’s important to vote” or knowing the three branches of govt but knowing enough about national policies — macro-economics, tax, corporate finance, trade, environment, local govt expenditures/taxes, civil rights, labor unions, world geography, foreign policy, abortion, guns — to intelligently evaluate candidates and govt decision-making.

      Our society largely relies on parents, the media and the entertainment industry to teach their children life preparation and citizenship preparation. Many/most parents — even upper-middle-class parents — largely fail to teach either to their children (and themselves are woefully inadequate re citizenship preparation). The media and entertainment industry largely ignore many aspects of life preparation and citizenship preparation + many high school and college graduates do not expose themselves to those parts of the media and entertainment industry that do teach the less glamorous aspect of life preparation and citizenship preparation.

      Low-SES students would warrant a separate long comment.


  3. Labor Lawyer: Colleges and universities view anything “practical” as not academic. That’s why they disdain life preparation and its variants. Elite prep schools continue along the same line, with minor exceptions to alter what they teach. Charter schools that are established with a particular theme probably offer the best hope for change.


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