July 28, 2005
civic skills, workplace skills (take 2)
I received some interesting comments in response to my recent post on the relationship between democratic education and education for the 21st-century workforce. So here is a different take, influenced by some good points from friends:
1. Jobs in the "information economy" require skills that are also essential for citizenship. Achieve, a nonprofit research organization created by the National Governors Association, has conducted surveys to determine the skills that are most demanded by employers and by college admissions officers (who, in turn, are gatekeepers to most of the best jobs). Achieve finds that successful workers in a knowledge economy must be able to collaborate in teams with diverse partners, communicating clearly and with civility. They must also be able to evaluate news reports critically, distinguish between reliable and unreliable online information, make public presentations, and in many other ways demonstrate skills that are equally necessary in a democratic community.
2. Intentional civic education is a good means to prepare people for skilled employment in the 21st century. Modern civic education includes classes on government, social studies, and history (which may involve debates, research projects, and site visits); service-learning opportunities that often combine practical problem-solving in the community with research and writing; appropriate student participation in the governance of schools; and simulations of lawmaking, judicial processes, and diplomacy. All of these pedagogies--which combine direct, practical experience with reflection on perennial issues and concepts--stand to teach the very skills that colleges and employers increasingly demand.
3. Good education for the job market is not adequate preparation for citizenship. There are two major reasons for this. First, even though all good jobs now require relatively advanced skills, they do not all demand civic skills. For example, the Achieve study finds that two manufacturing occupations that are growing and that pay good wages require advanced mathematics and literacy skills, including the ability to write memoranda and other analytical documents collaboratively. These occupations do not, however, require the ability to make oral presentations or to interpret the news--essential democratic skills. Thus, even in the 21st-century, a person can be well prepared for work and yet lack certain skills that would enable him or her to participate effectively in a democratic community.
Second, democratic participation requires some habits, skills, bodies of knowledge, and attitudes that are unnecessary in almost all jobs. For example, Achieve finds that high school graduates should be able to "analyze foundational U.S. documents for their historical and literary significance (for example, The Declaration of Independence, the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution, Abraham Lincoln's 'Gettysburg Address,' Martin Luther King's 'Letter from Birmingham Jail'). Indeed, citizens must understand these texts, which teach us our rights and responsibilities and the purposes of our public institutions. Many colleges rightly expect students to have such understanding--but that is because good colleges care about democracy. There is no necessary connection between understanding the founding documents of the American Republic and being effective in the workplace--as shown by the success of firms and employees in many foreign countries.
4. Communities are more economically successful when their residents have civic commitments and abilities. Statistics reveal a strong correlation between sustained prosperity and "social capital" (i.e., trust for other people and membership in groups). This correlation probably arises because people who work together to address local problems can form economic networks more efficiently, can reduce crime and corruption without as much dependence on the government, can gather and share information about assets and opportunities, and can persuade educated young people to stay in their community. However, successful civic collaboration requires habits and skills that, as Elinor Ostrom has shown, are counter-intuitive and contrary to people's immediate, narrow self-interest. Therefore, participation in communities must be taught; it will not develop automatically.
Put together, these four points support the need for collaboration among civic educators, the business community, and those who are primarily concerned about students' preparation for work. Civic education is not the same as training for the workforce--not even in a knowledge economy. Nevertheless, there is an important overlap between civic skills and workforce skills that suggest the need for dialogue and collaboration.