Wednesday, December 5, 2012

My Education? My Business!

I remember hearing something on the radio. The details escape me now but it was an interview with, I think, a producer at the BBC. He was recalling his career and he spoke of how he got the job. He sat at the desk opposite the interviewer who sat in front of a large bookshelf. The interviewer gestured to the books behind him and asked the applicant if he'd read any. The applicant said yes, I've read that one and that one and that one. The interviewer chose a book and asked the applicant to talk about it. He was able to impress the interviewer enough to get the job. I was impressed by the anecdote and it led me, in a roundabout and not entirely serious way to offer the following proposal.

The proposal is simply that job interviewers should be forbidden from asking candidates about their educational background: how much schooling, where, when, and what was studied. All such questions should be off the table.

Before fleshing out the argument, it will be helpful to look at some of the questions that job interviewers already are currently forbidden from pursuing. This is admittedly a little United States-centric but most wealthy countries have there own, albeit shorter list of such questions:

     Where were you born?
    What is your native language?
    Are you a lesbian? Are you married?
    Do you have children?
    Do you plan to get pregnant?
    How old are you?
    Do you observe Ramadan or Yom Kippur?
    Do you have a disability or chronic illness?
    Are you in the National Guard?
    Do you smoke or use alcohol?

Please notice two things. One, the list is designed to protect privacy and prevent discrimination. Two, there is no effort to extend this protection to a candidate's education background.

It's arguable that discrimination against candidates for going to the 'wrong' school is not a big problem in our society. I will set this aside and proceed to my main point. The ban on questions concerning education would not so much benefit the candidates as it would our work places, educational institutions, and society in general.

I want to consider this illustrative example. In South Korea candidates for jobs as counter persons at department stores are expected to have a degree from a university. Not to dismiss too lightly the skills necessary to perform such a job, but a high school education plus a few weeks of on the job training should suffice. I don't think the requirement for a degree is about knowledge or expertise in a job related field. It's about docility. Those who have been able to graduate have demonstrated a desirable degree of docility - attending class, following teacher's instructions, and performing as expected. That's what's behind the requirement for a university degree for a counter person in a department store. A certificate of docility. Of course department stores have their reasons to seek out a docile labour force, but I argue that it's not the proper function of our educational institutions to help them here, and to the extent they do, the quality of education suffers.

Education should focus on cultivating knowledge and creativity in students. Our universities should be more than a spring board to a career selling perfumes and cosmetics. The understanding that the credentials offered by study at university will be of no use in their seeking employment, will allow young people to put their time and money to better use in or out of school, and allow teachers to teach those motivated by intellectual curiosity rather than a desire to pad their resumes. Students will feel freer to pursue what they want, in areas where their talents lie, unconstrained by concerns of their future as job applicants.

My proposal would open up opportunities for a greater role for on the job training. Companies requiring specific skills would train their own workers in their own way, at their own expense. Vocational schools and apprenticeships which grant licenses to those who successfully complete the programmes should also enjoy greater importance. I'm not proposing that prospective pilots should not be asked to produce their pilot license.

There have been studies showing how in wealthy nations social mobility, the ability for one born of a less privileged family to rise in status,  has been declining. Societies have become more static, more feudal. These same studies show that education, ie a university degree, is the royal road to improving one's place in society. Perhaps opening up more space for apprenticeships and the like would open up new paths to greater social mobility. Letting a university degree remain the key to a higher social standing is not helping our social sclerosis. As I point out, social mobility is declining. The quality of education can only decline as well as long as the purpose of a university is seen as something other than a place to foster knowledge and creativity.

Before I close, I should go back to the anecdote I related at the start about the interview with the prospective BBC producer. It's probably true that the interviewer had a full accounting of the candidate's educational background on a piece of paper on his desk before him. And it's quite plausible that they spend a good deal of time discussing mutual acquaintances in their 'old boys' network. But finding the right person for the job needn't involve any of this. What makes a person suitable for a position is in their head and hands, not a university diploma.

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