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Jewish World Review May 26, 2000 / 21 Iyar, 5760

Thomas Sowell

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Consumer Reports

School to school? -- ONE OF THE PROBLEMS of getting old is that you miss out on so many of the exciting new things that young people enjoy. Often this is because what is new to them is something that has been tried again and again in the past -- and has turned out to be a bummer again and again.

One of the many idiotic ideas that reappear in our public schools in new verbal guises is the idea that the school should be preparing young people for the world of work. Since every old idea has to have a new name, this is now called the "school-to-work" program, sponsored by the federal government and spending billions of tax dollars.

This used to be called "vocational guidance" and the idea goes back at least 90 years, when the gurus of so-called progressive education said that schools spent too much time on academic subjects and not enough time on "practical" things that would be "relevant" to the kind of work and life that students would go into after finishing school.

In the latest reincarnation of vocational guidance as school-to-work programs, 8th graders are given tests to determine what kinds of jobs they are supposedly suited for and they are asked to make career choices. Such choices are premature by at least a decade. Some of the best liberal arts colleges allow -- and encourage -- their students to take two years of general education in college before deciding what subject to major in.

Such choices are too serious to make without some solid basis. You may be fascinated by chemistry experiments in high school, but that is very different from saying that you can master the difficult analytical skills required for majoring in chemistry in college. Every college has students who enroll in pre-med programs and end up majoring in sociology.

What did you really know about careers when you were in the 8th grade? I didn't even know what an economist was and had never heard of a think tank, such as the Hoover Institution, where I have worked for 20 years. Nor is it at all realistic to expect school teachers to have any such encyclopedic knowledge of the thousands of occupations out there today, much less what the trends are for various fields in the years ahead, when these 8th graders will be working adults.

When meteorologists have trouble predicting the weather five days ahead and financial experts can get clobbered in the stock market, what in the world would lead anybody to seriously expect school teachers to predict the world in which their 8th graders will be living, decades from now? The high rates of obsolescence of jobs and skills dooms any such efforts.

In an age when "educators" seem to be constantly trying to find things to do instead of educating, school-to-work is just another of those irresponsible self-indulgences which create the illusion that they are doing something useful, when in fact they are wasting precious time and spreading confusion among the young.

It is worse than that. School-to-work programs are also indoctrination programs for politically correct views about careers. They test for attitudes as well as aptitudes. Once you start playing little tin god, micro-managing other people's lives, it is hard to know where to stop. In reality, the place to stop is before you begin.

School is not a place for make-believe practicality. Schools need to do what they have a special advantage and a special time for doing-- conveying to the young the basic skills that they are going to need, irrespective of the particular jobs they may have, which no one can predict anyway.

More important, people need to be educated as citizens and as human beings.

For that, they need to be able to draw upon the wisdom of the ages -- whether expressed in mathematics, science, history or literature -- not the fads of the moment.

Employers are not demanding that job applicants show up knowing all about the work on the first day. But they need people who can read well enough to understand written instructions -- and many employers complain that the schools are not supplying that. Some employers are hiring engineers from India and Russia, not because they are better engineers, but because they have been taught the English language better than many Americans.

What we really need is a school-to-school program, not programs in which schools pretend to be what they cannot possibly be.

JWR contributor Thomas Sowell, a fellow at the Hoover Institution, is author, most recently, of The Quest for Cosmic Justice.


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© 2000, Creators Syndicate