If I were of the canine species, my reaction to reading Beaufort’s “Preparing Adolescents for the Literacy Demands of the 21st-Century Workplace” (Christenbury et al., 2009, pp. 239-255) would have immediately resulted in my hackles being raised. Instead, I read her arguments with great interest, yet also concern, as I disagree with some of her assumptions. Even in the introduction to this section of the text, “Literacy Out of School,” the editors contextualize the importance of literacy outside of school by excerpting A Test of Leadership, a document that assumes a utilitarian view of education, citing that “business and government leaders have repeatedly and urgently called for workers in all stages of life to continually upgrade their academic and practical skills” (p. 237). Noting counterpoints, of which Beaufort’s chapter is one, the editors, like the author, fail to question the validity of market-driven discourses. Instead, they assume “that many workplace values and practices are specific to the culture of a particular profession and the corporate values of individual businesses” (p. 238), a position, that while not untrue, sets the nature of education – specifically literacy education – as one that is purely service-oriented. In essence, an ironic contrast given what Beaufort proposes.
Beaufort begins the chapter by immediately drawing connections to economy and utility. While she is not incorrect in asserting that adolescents who do not have advanced literacy skills are often shut out of jobs – or job advancement – because of their lack of ability to think critically and write effectively, traits that are valued in the workplace (p. 239), her focus on education merely as preparation for work – a utilitarian function – addresses an incomplete philosophy of the purposes of education. In this way, she is not unlike conservative writer Charles Murray, who argued in an op-ed piece in the New York Times that education is a utilitarian concept linked to economic functionality. Simply, we educate the populous to perform tasks that ultimately serve to keep our market-driven economy operating successfully, ignoring the perspective that education, albeit idealistically, also serves as a tool for personal enlightenment as well as one of social utility. By understanding how to think critically and write effectively, as Beaufort suggests, people are equipped with the skills to engage in pertinent matters that are political, social, or otherwise. To reduce the argument to cultivating “literate behaviors” as they contribute to developing the “skills required in the various jobs [students] will do” (p. 240), especially targeting blue-collar workers and the changes reflected in blue-collar occupations as a result of the transition from a manufacturing-based to a technologically-based economy (p. 241), is telling and reminiscent of age-old arguments about the purpose of education. Further, her suggestion that high school curricula be rewritten to facilitate both student independence and greater exposure to non-fiction texts (p. 251), while not bad, too easily dismisses the critical thinking and independence that can as easily be fostered with other texts (digital, film, fiction, etc.) given a knowledgeable and effective instructor.
Arguments addressing the purpose of education are myriad, though a brief article, “Liberal Education Versus Vocational Training,” appearing in Harper’s Magazine in 1944 and written by Medford Evans and George R. Clark, addresses these disparate views:
“In every society where there is a ruling class there is one kind of education for rulers and another for the ruled. Vocational training, which confines itself to teaching skills, tends to limit the individual’s interest in general social problems and to discourage intelligent participation in political life. As such, it is the ideal education for the servants of the ruling class. It is sharply distinguished from a vital program of liberal education such as that which provides a broad general training for rulers … The real issue is a political rather than an academic one: how widely available should liberal education be? There is no more radical and democratic idea afloat in educational circles today than that of providing liberal education for everyone” (p. 60).
Only because the needs of industry have changed – not because of an altruistic desire to improve the worker’s plight– is the focus on preparing workers with the skills necessary to succeed in the workplace salient. Interestingly, though Beaufort supports preparing students by, among other things, “introducing them to the concept of discourse communities and the social nature of written communication” (p. 248), these goals have been hampered by the implementation of widespread standardized testing, which, in many cases, has resulted in teaching a disproportionate amount of working-class students skills using methods that are at odds with a dynamic curriculum that encourages independent and critical thinking as well as one that values the varied and complex nature of writing. So, while Beaufort’s suggestions regarding curriculum design and assessment are not far removed from what schools encourage – and teachers implement – in traditionally successful programs, it is questionable how much free thought and skill industry wishes its workers to have before they are considered counterproductive to a greed-based, market-driven economy.