The major speaker at the first college deans’ meeting I attended (in 1975) was the late Caroline Bird, who was one of the founders of modern American feminism – one of the small group of women who came to be called The Founding Mothers, and a serious force in America. By 1975, her books were well known: The Invisible Scar, about lingering effects of the Great Depression, and Born Female, about women working in an adverse economy – powerful, important books. Ms. Bird had set out to change America’s workplace and American girls’ prospects. She did it. First editions of many of her books are collector’s items. Copies associated with her and others among The Founding Mothers trade at very high prices.
In March of 1975, however, Ms. Bird published The Case Against College, and that book was the basis for her speech at my meeting. Similar books are published every few years, even now, but in 1975 I had read very few of them. From interviews, many with persons whose lives seemed not to be working out, others with experts, she argued that few students would need much formal education after 1975, and that instead most should be in the general education track then common in most public high schools. Harvard’s Christopher Jencks made a similar, but different case at about the same time. He argued that unequal schools fail economically disadvantaged children – a proposition that most of us have come to accept. Ms. Bird’s tone was different. Things are bad, she seemed to say: so what? Most people don’t need education anyway.
In 1975, I was young and idealistic. The argument seemed to devalue both college preparation and college itself, and at the same time to offer no new American ethic. It did not posit that hard work, personal ambition, parental care, and good schools and colleges together lead to personal accomplishment and advancement. Other similar books and arguments, before and after Ms. Bird’s, have had each its time. Subsequent data on wages and earnings in America, on job security and promotion prospects, and more recently on how the new technologies have changed the workplace have simply proved the argument wrong. Ms. Bird’s book amounted to a formula for displacement and disaster for parents and schools. Ms. Bird was smart: Eventually, she dropped the title from her resume. So is the marketplace: copies can be had from Amazon for one penny.
Now we have powerful studies showing that the opposite of The Case Against College has proved true. In 2012, business analysts at Reuters valued a college degree at a net $1 million in lifetime earnings. Last year, working from census data, economics writer Doug Short calculated the median household incomes for holders of college degrees at three times the median for households where the highest credential is the high school diploma, and a staggering five times the median for those who stopped with some high school but no diploma.
And 1975’s jobs are long gone.
Some history: Cathode ray tubes, transistors, and other components of modern digital systems – of the PC in your lap or on your desk, tools not imagined or understood 25 years ago – were invented long before 1975. They were known and widely used, but not by everyone. They had little of the information and computing capacities that all of us use now. Compact integrated circuits had not moved from lab to factory in 1975. Old-style home computers were not offered for sale until 1977.
The internet, invented for use by scientists, and its foster-child, the World Wide Web, invented in 1989, have given unexpectedly critical meaning to the once euphemistic term “information age.” Suddenly, this new technology is displacing workers from skilled manual trades that require repeated actions (stamping, much assembly-line work, much clerical work, and so on). Vast numbers of American workers (some 6,000,000 by one estimate, and more yet by others) have lost jobs that seemed indestructible in 1975 and have either found new training, new education, and new jobs or moved down the food chain to unskilled jobs.
Think how things have changed since the year 2000. Your iPad types what you say, and gets it right. New but fragile occupations are slowly replacing old ones. For example, workers trained to do computer coding, a step in software development, are in short supply. One can enroll for twelve intense weeks in coding academies, some of them now in community colleges. These schools require sound math and mature language skills. Their students use these skills from the first hour. The academies do not back up or slow down. They do not offer remediation in what they see, rightly, as core survival skills.
The good news about this is that the law of supply and demand works. Coders earn high hourly wages immediately. That’s good. Coding is hard to learn. It demands prior learning and intense concentration for long periods of time. It changes constantly. The bad news is that coding is a subset of programming. In laboratories all over the world computer scientists are working right now, today, to make human programming an obsolete skill, one to be dropped as machines learn to program themselves in response to what we say to them.
These developments have everything to do with VES going forward…. VES has evolved, as education and the American people have evolved….
Any one of us could recite the curriculum – the selection of courses in English (writing and the skills and knowledge needed to read intelligently and well, and a coherent body of literature – the kind in high school textbooks of English and American literature); Math, through the level required for college-level science; Science, the kind done in laboratories, and its methods – “systematic observation, measurement, and experiment, and the formulation, testing, and modification of hypotheses” (O.E.D.); History, and other social sciences (economics, psychology, sometimes others); at least one foreign language, classical or modern, through the level of basic reading and communication; plus suitable instruction in religion and moral and ethical behavior – these, the special province of this kind of school, physical education and sport, and other topics.
That sounds old fashioned. It is. More than one element of it has been attacked. Not much of it has been rejected or set completely aside. That list fairly describes Thomas Jefferson’s education as well as Dr. King’s, George W. Bush’s education as well as Bill Clinton’s. It does not necessarily define all that one needs to know or determine all that make for human success. Schools have ample room to innovate within the model, to serve their communities: President Bush attended Phillips Andover, and President Clinton, the old Hot Springs High School. The model encapsulates the knowledge and skills that are appropriate in the aggregate to the uses of citizens who are willing to accept responsibility beyond whatever they may have had from birth.
This core (even foreign languages, challenging as they sometimes are) is if anything more necessary now than it was a generation ago, when most of us grew up. No one knows what comes next after our information age. Everyone who works and lives in the economy knows that learning to learn, life-long learning, matters more now than at any time in our history. For our children’s time Thomas Jefferson’s rule holds true — that people who want to be both ignorant and free in a state of civilization want what never was and never will be.
The curriculum, the circuit or course of required subjects, prefigures all else…. This is the niche. These humble courses that all of us know define the top schools now, as they will going forward. They are the common work that gives the school life and meaning.
Despite my criticisms, I liked Ms. Bird, but she was wrong on what matters in a school. Students come from many places and families and backgrounds. In a sense, these origins seek out shape and substance for young adolescents. As parents, we want learning to form our children – girls and boys who bring distinctive family cultures and perhaps regional accents to this school where they grow up. Each new student brings unique experiences, strengths and weaknesses. Each new student is outside the school before she or he can aspire to be inside, to become a sort of citizen with ancient rights and privileges – to think independently, to be heard, to function as a citizen, girls and boys perhaps not yet much in the outside world, not much beyond their parents’ reach, but on their way.
Within a school’s faculty and board, to set the curriculum is to accept obligations of choice…. Better schools last longer than a decade or so…. To advertise one’s curriculum is to attest to employing teachers capable of teaching it. Impactful teachers bring life-long engagement to their work, to the lives of their own minds, to their students’ coming adulthood. These are large demands. They define lives rather than jobs. They bring their own rewards, not many of them apparent to outsiders.
Trustees assume other responsibilities, and these obligations are distinctly American. Trustees stand in place of parents with regard to the school’s destiny…. They push and prod to address futures built on their best speculations, visions, of what it can be. Good board members know that they have freely accepted responsibilities. Good ones never speak of their power. The term makes no sense to them. They are fiduciary trustees, not superintendents of work or of mere compliance….
I was asked to speculate about VES’s future. I think I see it. It is built on work that comes before the future, on human relationships, and successes and failures that have been inevitably personal as they have shaped the personalities and consciences of alumni. This future aims to qualify students to flourish in unknowable, perhaps unimaginable venues, to be competent and generous and honorable, to sustain and protect their families and communities, to serve and to lead their employers, to know what it is to love and to work, and to build their future lives on what they have learnt here. That has been VES’s accomplishment during this first century. Surely, that is also its highest and best future.