Ausbildung und Zeit

“What the devil is that?”, you’re probably thinking. “Ausbildung und Zeit?”

It means “education and time” (and I hope you caught the play on German philosopher Martin Heidegger’s seminal work for our times, Sein und Zeit).

What this post is about is simple. Education has to be appropriate to its time. Otherwise it doesn’t do its job.

In the Middle Ages, only a very few went on to universities. Most never went to a formal school at all — they learned on the job. Guilds apprenticed far more than ever sat in a lecture. Working with Dad and learning from him handled the vast majority.

It was a society where only the few charted their own course, whether by escaping the land to go to a town and apprentice — “Stadt luft macht frei” (town air makes you free) — or going into the clergy (where you went to a church school and a very few went on to higher education).

The times were very much about, of all things, the consumer. Merchants travelled to fairs to hawk goods, hoping to sell some. Figuring out what people without more than a penny or two to spend would spend it on meant attending to their needs, their wants and their desires.

Flash forward to after the Black Death, and things started to change. Losing more than one person in three meant there weren’t enough people to do all the work, and so the old feudal land tenure began to break down. Town work paid better. Apprenticing couldn’t keep up and so schooling — a few years’ worth, using the Trivium (you’d know it today as “reading, writing, and arithmetic”, but then it was the categories of logic and grammar, rhetoric and reasoning, coupled with arithmetic) — became more common.

Education “dumbed down” to meet the demand, and the split in our society between those who are merely educated (trained in school) and those who are learnèd (who actually understand the principles of what they do and can teach themselves) begins, never to be healed. The dumbing down, in turn, fed fire to the Renaissance, which, for all its art, saw our sciences actually move backward, as we made a fetish of classical works because their “Latin was the Latin of Cicero” over mediaeval discoveries written in “degenerate Latin”.

Three centuries of medical students were told to grab the leeches and bleed the patients instead of doing what we knew how to do.

As Europeans fanned out around the globe in the age of discovery, the times changed to mercantilism. Colonies (like the American and Caribbean ones) were restricted in what they could manufacture for the benefits of companies acting as arms of their governments. What brought it to an end, at least in the English-speaking world, was the twin forces of the Industrial Revolution with its acceleration of change powered by hydrocarbons, and the American Revolution, which freed the New World to develop as it pleased.

Education then was the one room schoolhouse. Students (amazingly, in today’s eyes) learned multiple languages — learning Ancient Greek, Latin, Hebrew, French, German as well as English was considered perfectly reasonable, so that sources and books could be read. There was, of course, far less science to be learned, especially considering that the science teaching tended to lag behind the leading edge of the sciences by about a century or so.

Which it does to this day, by the way. Or did you learn about calculus and relativity in elementary school? (You could teach both there if you wanted to; we just don’t want to.)

The rise of industrialism meant a new type of person — the person who could do one repetitive task over and over — had to be developed. Education moved in that direction. Classrooms by age level emerged to ensure everyone worked together, neither too quickly nor too slowly. (Those of us old enough remember chanting times tables together.)

In the twentieth century this third wave of economic activity in the Western World — industrialism — ran its course and degenerated into financialism. All modes of life follow S-curves just as do individual products and services; period reinvention is required. Add the taking of this model to the global scene and we are now in the inverse of the Mediaeval post-Black Death labour shortage: there is a global labour glut.

Yet we still educate for a world that has passed us by. It’s one of the big reasons youth unemployment is nearing 20% in Ontario … is at 50% in Greece and Spain … and is near 100% in the countries that underwent “Arab Springs” a year ago.

It’s not just that by and large a degree (or a pair of them, or even getting the Ph.D.) don’t guarantee a job. It’s that the whole idea of the job stems from industrial activity. We had callings, and no shortage of work, before plants, and we do even now, but the idea of a job — a position that can be described, in which the person is considered fungible, with a ladder of progression, etc. — is starting to fade.

There will be, in other words, less of them around the globe every year. No shortage of people, though…

What this says to me more than anything else is that running up a honking pile of student debt to get credentials may not make as much sense as it used to. Mostly because that money may be needed after graduation to start a business, to take a position that doesn’t pay well but does satisfy you in other ways, or to deal with the long lags that may come between positions.

The last time a university as it was constituted didn’t pay, they burnt the library’s contents as fuel in the fireplaces to keep warm. Yes, Oxford.

Education must be appropriate to the times — and ours isn’t.

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