Vocational Schools and Getting to the Knowledge Age: Finding a Calling

From Continuations
May 19, 2017 - 9:43am
I recently listened to a talk by David Autor about employment and technology. He praised the high school movement as being incredibly forward looking for addressing the rapid decline in farm employment. When asked about what the equivalent would be today, David answered “vocational schools.” Now as it turns out my Dad was a teacher at a vocational school in Germany where the apprenticeship system has been maintained throughout the Industrial Age. I learned a ton from my Dad about technical drawings and the workings of drills and lathes.Based on observing my Dad and his students, as well as my thinking and writing in World After Capital, I think David is right about “vocational” but in the original sense of the word. Vocational comes from Latin “vocatio” which means a call or summons. What we need “vocational” school to be is a way of finding one’s calling. A calling is very different from a job or even a career. It is about one’s purpose in life instead of being about earning an income. Humans have a profound need for purpose which will not go away even once we automate many jobs. Schools must help people find their purpose (incidentally that was the role of the practical philosophical schools in ancient Greece).There is an important analogy here with the transition from the Agrarian Age to the Knowledge Age. In many countries we went from having 50 - 75\% of the workforce in agriculture to 5\% or even less. Now fast forward say 80-100 years into the Knowledge Age. I believe we will see the same trend for all workforce activity. Humans will be just as busy as before but much of that will be in the realm of voluntary, purpose driven activity. Conversely the workforce activity, as in selling labor for money, can become a small fraction (sub 20\%) of all human activity.I know such a change seems extremely hard to fathom, much like imagining the Industrial Age from the Agrarian Age must have been difficult. And we will not get there automatically through some deterministic force of technology, history or economics. Instead we have to want it. One place to start with that is schools and what they teach. And in that regard David Autor is exactly right (although he meant it differently). The high school movement had a vision of the future. It is time for a new one. For a World After Capital. And “vocational” as in calling is exactly the right


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