(An earlier version of this article was published in Educational Horizons)
Gary K. Clabaugh, Emeritus Professor of Education, La Salle University
We’re told to worry about the transition from school to work. What nonsense. Schooling flows all too seamlessly into the world of work. Often with unfortunate results. Consider Richard Nixon’s transition from school to work. He oozed from first grade to the White House using the same basic tactics (and possibly the same briefcase) the entire way. Then there is Henry Kissinger, our would-be Metternich. He went from sucking up at Washington High to sucking up to Nixon as smoothly as a slug slides under a stone. Or how about Mc George Bundy, the top-drawer student whose Yale and Harvard schooling was a springboard for becoming Special Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs. Here he seamlessly applied his schooling to the task of organizing an immoral and un-winnable war, while in the process getting well over 200,000 less elite kids (not to mention over a million Vietnamese) killed or maimed. Then there are the suck-ups surrounding President Trump. Didn’t school prepare them to serve this miscreant? Want final example? Consider the transition from student to Miss America. Here, where mass culture throbs in an orgasm of purest expression, the transformation is so smooth as to be invisible. The same phony smile and unctuous compliance that win you high school “honors” such as the American Legion Award, leads seamlessly to national celebrity, hundreds of thousands in appearance fees, and a $40,000 scholarship to continue learning how to please.
Are these aberrations, deviations, abnormal? No they are not. This same sort of thing occurs time and again because school is eerily effective in getting folks ready for whatever “the world of work” demands. Imagine the thousands of corporations where employees lack input, are besieged with management-generated platitudes and ultimately treated like chattel. Does such a thing take school graduates by surprise? Are they dumbfounded, bewildered, unable to make the transition? Not on your life! Why? Because these corporations are much like our school-as-factory, bureaucratized schools.
How about spending the best years of your life working for a corporation. then getting right-sized when you are in your 50’s. Are such victims astonished to find themselves on the street and out of luck while company executives pocket millions? Not if you attended a typical school-as-factory because you already learned that your individual humanity counts for very little in the broad scheme of things.
What about jobs requiring a consciencectomy? I’m thinking of the corporate types, for example, who, in the 1990’s, crashed our economy. The top-tier individuals involved in the massive fraud that triggered this disaster surely had excellent academic credentials. Were they disoriented by what school taught them when their opportunity for a big score came along? Evidently not. Take, for example, the Prudential Insurance “churning” fiasco. State and federal lawsuits alleged that Prudential agents and sales managers engaged for years in ‘twisting’ or ‘churning’ insurance contracts to gain lucrative commissions at the expense of clients.2 Did schools fail to meet Prudential’s corporate needs?3 Not a bit. Adapting in the same way that paid offers students, the vast majority of agents and managers complied with company orders and did what was required. Moreover, they did it well. Only one former Prudential agent was fired for refusing to participate in these fraudulent practices. And by the way, in case you think this larceny was unapproved by senior staff, Prudential managers not only knew about ‘churning,’ they helped train newer agents in the technique.5 Some of these executives must surely have been M.B.A. types. Did that refinement cause them to balk at “churning?” No, they went with the flow. Does going along to get along work in school? Do skunks stink?
Lest you think Prudential was an aberration, consider that Metlife and Equitable Life Assurance Society agents complied with similar company “needs.”4 In both cases the school to work transition was similarly smooth. Neither corporation had any trouble with employees refusing to cheat or misuse clients, even when they were elderly and infirm.
Frighteningly smooth school-to-work transitions don’t stop at the masters degree level either. All too many Ph. D.’s, M.D.’s and J.D.’s glide effortlessly into sordid careers. I know a fellow with a Ph. D. in psychology, for instance, who quit his academic job to work for a major tobacco company. Here he applied his knowledge of psychology to selling people on smoking. Did he have trouble switching from running rats to pushing cigarettes. Not at all. In fact, he told me his detailed knowledge of B.F. Skinner’s theories was invaluable in making a “seamless transition.” Similarly, TV executives do not lack for production staff (or guests) for the very worst of TV reality shows. (“Today on Maury a mother who says her son got her pregnant!”)And what about armaments manufacturers? They have no trouble hiring chemists to make napalm stick more tenaciously to babies. No, regardless of how base, vile, and demeaning, folks eagerly line up for these positions. And their school-to-work transition smooths they way.
Training apparatchiks to more cheerfully and cleverly do corporate bidding is NOT what teachers should aspire to. Nor is training conscience free corporate leaders for the world of work. An educator’s first duty, however difficult and troubled by people lacking in vision or conscience, is the formation of more decent and discerning human beings.