Taking Thought for the Morrow

By Dr. Eugene Maier

Does anyone care about today? A fifth grade teacher tells his class the reason he gives them lots of homework is to prepare them for middle school. A seventh grade algebra teacher tells his students that they have to write down every step because that’s what the eighth grade teacher wants. A high school English teachers says her job is to prepare students for college. All this against a backdrop of state and national efforts to make schools the training grounds for corporate America. Students are bombarded with propaganda: “Stay in school now and there’s a good job in your future.” Education isn’t for now, it’s for some time down the road. Hang in their, kid; the payoff’s coming!

But when? The fifth grade teacher tells you their job is to get you ready for middle school. The middle school algebra teacher tells you their job is to make sure you know everything the high school geometry teacher wants. The high school teacher tells you they’re getting you ready for college and the college teacher tells you they’re getting you ready for graduate school. And where are all those high tech jobs the politicians keep talking about? In Oregon, where technology has replaced lumber as the largest industry, the Employment Department reports less than 4% are in “high-tech manufacturing”; 54% are in “services” and “retail trade”—and agricultural jobs aren’t included in their report.

If school is for a future that never happens, what’s the point? Small wonder that students become disheartened and drop out. In the last ten years, the percentage of people in Oregon who have not completed high school has risen from 10% to 25%. In my cynical moments I say that’s a move in the right direction: if we keep at it, maybe we can get the dropout rate to match the rate of dead-end jobs. We have a ways to go though: 25% is still a far cry from 77%, which, according to the University of Washington’s Northwest Policy Center, is the percentage of jobs in Oregon that don’t pay a living wage—enough for an adult and two children to live on.

However, the gap between reality and fantasies of the future is only one hazard faced by an educational system that sees its primary function as preparing students for a time that’s yet to come. Far more deleterious is its effect on students.

For one thing, promoting education as the pathway to a future career feeds the message that one’s value is measured by the job one has—a message that debilitates many adults when layoff time comes or when a job commensurable with one’s education doesn’t appear. I find it ironic that counselors are telling sixteen-year-old students to stay in school so they can get a good job while other counselors are telling terminated sixty-year-olds that their self-worth isn’t dependent on their employment. If nothing else, we’re keeping the counselors busy.

Worst of all, though, education that focuses on the future disparages our students. Rather than embracing them for whom they are at the moment, we cast them in some contrived future mold. We look past them, ignoring their presence—social, emotional, and intellectual—and design our instruction not for them, but for what we want them to be. Our zeal to prepare students for the future only serves to obliterate the present, including whatever sparks of enthusiasm still burn.

As paradoxical as it may seem, the best way to prepare for the future is to address the needs of today. On second thought, why is that so strange? The present is always with us, the future never is.