Education Is No Zero-Sum Game

“Wouldn’t you want your plumber to be able to quote Shakespeare?” I posed the question to our veteran math teacher, thirty years in the trenches, and he said, succinctly and without hesitation, “No.”

At first, I was taken aback, but, as we chatted, I realized that he saw it as a zero-sum question. He had nothing against Shakespeare; he simply wanted his plumber to be a good plumber and considered the Bard a distraction.

I understand. We want our auto mechanics to know the difference between a brake line and a muffler, our carpenters to appreciate the importance of a plumb line and the use of a hammer—oops, nail gun.

But it is not a zero-sum game. And knowing the foibles of Macbeth does not mean you must be useless with a soldering gun.

And therein lies the conundrum. Had I posed the question this way—Would you like your plumber to be as quick in thought and as creative in action as Shakespeare?—he may have had second thoughts about his “No.” Would he want his plumber to be able to identify the lead pipes in his 1850 house? To know that his cranky fifty-year-old copper pipes can be replaced with plastic? To know that the state legislature was considering a bill to ban PVC?

This is the skills dilemma.

I attended an economic development seminar recently and listened to the CEO of our local hospital, one the largest employers in the region, talk about the lack of skilled workers. She didn’t mean doctors and nurses, though. She meant janitors and bed-pan assistants. “Our biggest problem is finding people who can read and write and show up on time,” she said.The Washington Post suggests that our manufacturing resurgence is being hampered by the lack of “skilled workers.” What skills?

I think it’s time to bring back reading and writing, history, science, art, and music. That way kids at least know how to recognize a job opportunity when it presents itself. Mark Bauerlein’s essay, the Mimetic Classroom, is apt here.

Think of it on the sports analogy. What sport is mastered simply by playing the sport? None of them. To improve in football or baseball or tennis or soccer, you lift weights and stretch daily, even though weightlifting and stretching are not practiced on the playing field. The principle is simple: at least part of training involves exercises not repeated in the game. One doesn’t hear football players in the weight room complaining, “Man, why do we have to do any more curls—this isn’t football!

A friend of mine, a Princeton history grad who went on to become a homebuilder and now teaches carpentry at a VocEd school, says he constantly lectures his would-be hammerers about the importance of basic math and communications skills. And he notes that VocEd, which has been “a dumping ground for dumb kids,” is changing. At his school, they have introduced three new standards for admission. First, a student must write a short essay about why he or she wants to be in a particular class. “You’d be amazed how many kids that eliminates,” says my friend. The school is also looking at a student’s reading scores and discipline record. “These won’t disqualify you, but the flags go up,” he explains. “And we deal with them. But these three things have been a huge step forward.”

We need more flags and we need to reconsider our definitions of skills. We can no longer afford to see VocEd as a refuge for the academically unprepared, because today’s economy—including its industrial sector—is far too dynamic and demanding. The point of a liberal arts education—and I include math and science in that education—is to teach some eternal verities so that, when the surface world changes, as it tends to do, we have citizens that possess the most important skill of all: the ability to adapt. As old Willie would say, “Now all the youth of England are on fire, and silken dalliance in the wardrobe lies: Now thrive the armourers, and honour’s thought reigns solely in the breast of every man….” Including the lathe operator?

– Peter Meyer

This post also appeared in Fordham’s Education Gadfly Weekly

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