At the turn of the last century, the most economical way to travel from New York to Los Angeles was by rail. Not many people did it because it took a long time and was relatively expensive. There were good reasons to make the trip, but not everybody was able to capitalize on those reasons. By the middle of the century, passenger rail was already slated for “has been” status in the US with the growth of the airline industry resulting from innovations in long distance air travel during World War II. Transcontinental air travel killed passenger rail — and ushered in a new era in business opportunity — by removing several days from the round trip. By 1975 almost three-quarters of passenger travel in the US was by air and less than 10% was by rail. Today it’s possible — altho uncomfortable — to fly from New York to LA for a business meeting and return the same day. It’s a long day, but it’s possible. More to the point, new business opportunities arose because air travel became more available and ubiquitous. Disney is a prime example. Without air travel, DisneyLand would never have been able to “go national” and attract visitors from around the country — and eventually the world. In a certain sense, the world’s business required the development of air travel once the technology became available. The pace of the world required it. At the turn of the last century, taking a week to get from New York to LA was acceptable because there was no other choice. Today, very few people can afford the luxury of taking that much time. And we’ve learned that the airplane can take us places where rail lines cannot be laid.
The parallel between the Academy and passenger rail is inescapable. The question of “Where are we going?” is less clear. When you need to get to LA, you know where you’re bound for. But what’s the destination for education? Is there one? From an economic perspective, we need credentials to apply for a job. The reality is that you don’t really need skill in the job to get it, just good credentials. Lacking credentials, you don’t even get the opportunity to fail. So, in a certain sense, the role of education is certification.
That’s a problem.
The line worker who loses his/her job at the factory can’t afford to spend four years getting a degree. Even two years of trade school is problematic. Unemployment compensation lasts a matter of weeks, not months, and financial obligations snowball quickly. A professional caught in a mid-career job shift has similar, albeit less immediate, problems. Having one degree makes it easier (altho not necessarily less expensive) to acquire another. Again, making the change from retail management to, say, computer programming can take years to achieve transition. In the meantime, those people have some serious problems. Forget going into math or science related fields unless you start young — say, 14 — and work forward. It’s as unlikely as becoming a gymnast at thirty.
But Education isn’t really about just getting credentials, is it? I mean the credential gives us the opportunity to apply for a job, but the skills to actually DO the job are also needed and we need a better way to get those skills than the current model of Education.
Just as the airlines superceded the railroads as passenger carriers, we need to find/develop the replacement for the current models of education. We’re still going the same places. We still need to learn. We need skills and knowledge. We need paths to credential so that we can actually use our skills and knowledge by passing the gatekeepers. We still need to get to the same places — credential, skill, knowledge, self-fulfillment. What we need is some kind of jet plane to replace our Educational Iron Horse and, when we find it, perhaps it will take us places we didn’t think were possible.