It Doesn't Make Sense

By Dr. Eugene Maier

It doesn't make sense. On the front page of Monday's Oregonian there's a story on the Certificate of Advanced Mastery, which the State Department of Education is pushing as a replacement for the high school diploma. The story, under the heading "Learning for 'real life'," says that the certificate will introduce teen-agers to careers and, if successful, make school relevant by showing them the connection between what they learn in class and what they need to know to be successful on the job. Meanwhile in the business section, the headlines read "Jobless tally reaches the highest level in a decade" and "Laid-off workers prepare for a tough transition." In the latter article, seven people are interviewed who have just been laid off, all highly skilled, some with college degrees. So just what are we preparing students for? With Oregon in a recession and the nation heading that way, "real life" may well mean "life without a job."

It didn't make the headlines, but on the same Monday evening, our book club—old-timers for the most part—continued its discussion of "A Life Beyond, Finding Peace and Purpose in Midlife and Beyond". The author, Sallirae Henderson, spent a number of years as a counselor in a retirement community in our neighborhood. She warns of the "vacuum in the psyche in which emptiness and despair thrive" if our self-worth is based on roles and careers no longer a part of our everyday lives. We put 16-year-olds in an educational system that tells them a job is the ultimate goal of life and then tell 60 year-olds not to believe it. It doesn't make sense.

As far as that goes, using the term "mastery" to describe the outcome of a secondary school education doesn't make much sense either. For those of us who have been around for awhile, mastery is not a term we would apply to many things in our lives, other than simple tasks like tying our shoes or routine procedures like solving linear equations. And certainly not to something we learned in our teenage years.

So what makes sense? Mostly, I think, a different kind of rhetoric—a different way of talking about education and what we expect from it. If we must give certificates, let's make them certificates of educational progress and initiative, rather than mastery. Mastery suggests the end, rather than the beginning, of an educational journey. Completing high school is but the first step in an adult's education which ought to be a life-long process that may or may not take place in formal settings.

Above all, in our public discourse, let's not equate education with job training. Education serves the much broader purposes of developing the vast and varied talents innate in every human being, and overcoming ignorance and prejudice, for the betterment of both individuals and society. Preparing for a job may be a part of that, but it's only a fraction of the total. An education ought to serve one equally well in all aspects of life, regardless of color, creed, age, gender and employment status.

Thankfully, there are those who take a broader view. While talking about these matters at the book club, one of the mothers mentioned that her son, recently graduated from college, was selling cars. An acquaintance of hers, upon hearing that, exclaimed, "What, he's graduated from college and selling cars?" Before she could respond, a daughter interjected: "In our family we go to college to get an education and what we do for a job is up to us." It makes sense to me.