Square pegs

· by Steve · Read in about 3 min · (533 Words)

It seems de rigueur right now for governments and businesses to come together to collectively form skills strategies, in order to co-ordinate the employment needs of business with the output of the education system. On the face of it, this sounds completely logical - kids will eventually grow up and need jobs, and businesses will need new employees to replace those moving on.

But somehow, the concept of aligning education with the needs of existing businesses makes me rather uncomfortable. The core reason is this: is the purpose of education to prepare the next wave of human cogs to slide with minimum effort into the existing industry machine? Or is it to maximise the return on the latent potential present in each student, whichever direction that may lie in? Since I’ve emotively loaded my statement of those options, you can probably tell which view I subscribe to.

Yes, making sure people can get jobs is important - people need money, businesses need people. But in my view, designing a funnel for students into existing industries, rather than extrapolating from their own abilities (wherever that leads), is in danger of becoming a kind of social conditioning, one which could lead to stagnation long term. Are new ideas or talents going to be sidelined in favour of becoming a good employee? Are we in danger of extending the urge to ‘settle’ when it comes to a career at an earlier age, and for less practical dreams to be discarded?

Now, I may well be overstating this, and I’m not basing it on any concrete proposals - it’s just a feeling. My own concern is heightened by the fact that I live on a small island on which by far the most dominant industry is one which never motivated me in the slightest: financial services. The industry dominates so much, those outside of it might as well be shouting into a tornado when it comes to policy - I exist on a fringe and have been lucky enough to establish an independent business model, but many others had no other option but to leave. In my view there’s a particular kind of groupthink going on which is both dangerous and self-sustaining - finance is biggest so we must support it, with that help it grows and becomes more essential, loading risk upon risk. If we effectively design our education to feed this industry, we’re extending the monoculture even further and decreasing the chance that one of those students grow up to do something surprising and successful, like one the few other well-known local names Specsavers.

I’m a believer in allowing young people to keep their options open, of following their passions for as long as possible and not ‘settling’ for the less desirable but practical option any earlier than they have to (and hopefully, not at all). I believe that’s not only personally rewarding, but leads to a more innovative and less stagnant community / economy. If you can’t explore a blank canvas during your formative education, when can you?

Let’s not shave the corners off the square pegs as early as we can, just because all the holes we can see right now are round.