Who Needs Education?



Tom Easton

Professor of Science (ret.)


When I went to college back in the sixties, the dominant paradigm was still liberal arts education. The idea was that the student should learn to learn, learn to think, and get a decent grounding across the breadth of human knowledge with courses in English composition and literature, history, philosophy, science, math, languages, and more. State universities trained nurses, though there was some shift toward private schools. State teachers’ colleges had yet to be replaced with community colleges with their broader array of vocational programs. Four-year schools had yet to adopt more ambitious vocational programs.

Today vocational education is the norm. There is a nod to the liberal arts in the form of “distribution requirements,” but liberal arts majors are being cut in favor of career education (https://hechingerreport.org/liberal-arts-face-uncertain-future-at-nations-universities/) and the liberal arts remain healthy only at elite schools, though even there they are perhaps less healthy than they used to be. See Joseph Epstein, “Who Killed the Liberal Arts,” Weekly Standard, September 17, 2012 (https://www.weeklystandard.com/joseph-epstein/who-killed-the-liberal-arts ). His concluding paragraph seems quite prophetic:

“The [complete] death of liberal arts education would constitute a serious subtraction. Without it, we shall no longer have a segment of the population that has a proper standard with which to judge true intellectual achievement. Without it, no one can have a genuine notion of what constitutes an educated man or woman, or why one work of art is superior to another, or what in life is serious and what is trivial. The loss of liberal arts education can only result in replacing authoritative judgment with rivaling expert opinions, the vaunting of the second- and third-rate in politics and art, the supremacy of the faddish and the fashionable in all of life. Without that glimpse of the best that liberal arts education conveys, a nation might wake up living in the worst, and never notice.”

I fear that vocational education may go the same way, and with it much of higher education. If that seems a drastic prediction, consider that many people are now fearing that artificial intelligence (AI) and robots will soon threaten many folk’s livelihoods.  Indeed, a number of recent studies project that by mid-century computers will be able to do something like 80 percent of all the jobs now held by human beings (Stuart W. Elliott, https://issues.org/byline/stuart-w-elliott/ , “Anticipating a Luddite Revival,” Issues in Science and Technology, Spring 2014, and “Artificial Intelligence, Robots, and Work: Is This Time Different?” Issues in Science and Technology, Fall 2018.) “Safe” jobs that demand more skills are in education, health care, science, engineering, and law, but even those may be matched within a few decades.  “In principle,” Elliott says, “there is no problem with imagining a transformation in the labor market that substitutes technology for workers for 80% of current jobs and then expands in the remaining 20% to absorb the entire labor force.”

If Elliott is on target, in a few decades we may face a dire situation: No jobs, or at least a great many fewer jobs. That implies a vastly reduced need for job-related training—in other words, for vocational education. Since all higher education has been growing extraordinarily expensive and students are more and more obliged to acquire crippling student debt loads, there will also be a vastly reduced desire (or willingness to pay) for higher education.

We are already seeing the death of small colleges. More are under threat; see Abigail Hess, “Harvard Business School Professor: Half of American Colleges Will Be Bankrupt in 10 to 15 Years,” CNBC Make It, November 15, 2017 (https://www.cnbc.com/2017/11/15/hbs-professor-half-of-us-colleges-will-be-bankrupt-in-10-to-15-years.html ). Part of the reason is that even high tuition rates can’t cover expenses. Another part is that students aren’t so dumb that they don’t realize state schools may be a better buy. Another is demographic—there are fewer teens available. See Derek Thompson, “This Is the Way the College ‘Bubble’ Ends,” The Atlantic, July 26, 2017 (https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2017/07/college-bubble-ends/534915/).

Okay, so an AI-induced lack of need for higher education will only affect half the present number (over 4,000) of colleges and universities. That’s bad enough. The question is now what schools will be left? Elite schools with huge endowments; Yale, MIT and Harvard aren’t about to go under. State schools will last as long as the states are willing to keep paying the bills.

The number of students will go down, of course. Why not? If you can’t afford it and don’t need it, why sign up for it?

But don’t you need an education to enjoy life? No, you don’t need a college degree to go fishing, watch TV, have a rewarding relationship, raise children, play golf and other games, travel, pursue hobbies, paint pictures, and so on. You just need income to pay the bills. And that will be provided—to a point–by Guaranteed Basic Income.

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