One of the things one often hears is that investment in education is what is needed to boost national productivity. The tremendous explosion of global higher education is explained as a response to this need for better educated and more productive workers. I think there are some good arguments to be made against this position (a lot of new jobs don’t need a college degree, much of the supposed growth in American productivity came from the financial bubble, etc.) but let us take it at face value for now. If there is a demand for a certain type of new worker, few of the world’s institutions of higher education are meeting the demand to produce such a worker.
Take for example this letter from Mohit Chandra, a partner with KPMG, to “India’s Graduating Classes.” Many of his complaints would be just as valid of students I’ve met in Philadelphia as they are of students I’ve met in Ahmedabad or Taipei. It seems to me that there are two possible explanations for this failure. The first is that the institutions of global higher education are particularly unproductive and inefficient at producing the type of students they wish to produce. The second is that they don’t actually wish to produce such students in the first place. I’d like to argue that the latter statement is closer to the truth.
Let us look at the skills that Chandra wishes to find in new employees: “language skills, in thirst for knowledge, in true professionalism and, finally, in thinking creatively and non-hierarchically.” In reading this list I can’t help but think of Bourdieu and Passeron’s argument that education primarily serves to cultivate a
misrecognition of the truth of the legitimate culture as the dominant cultural arbitrary, whose reproduction contributes towards reproducing the power relations.
The skills Chandra lists are elite skills largely cultivated in the home long before arriving at the university. Bourdieu and Passeron argue that schooling exists largely to “inculcate the fait accompli of the legitimacy of the dominant culture” rather than actually training students to cultivate these skills.
I think this tension explains the tremendous popularity of the Bollywood Film 3 Idiots.
Almost every single Taiwanese person I know has seen this film, which was also a huge hit in India. The film is about three engineering students at a highly competitive university who refuse to learn the official curriculum, instead evidencing those skills which Chandra claims KPMG is looking for. My point being that there is a certain recognition in the success of this film that the skills being taught in universities are not the skills people really need to compete in the new economy.
When my wife and I were shooting our last documentary in India we sometimes stayed in a guest house on the campus of an engineering school. Some of the students there knew that there was a visiting anthropologist and they would wait outside our guest house late at night when we got back from shooting, wishing to talk until I could no longer keep my eyes open. Like the “3 idiots” in the film, they were desperate to get the education they feel they needed rather than the official education being provided by the university.
One often reads that high end management companies and the like (places like KPMG) like students with advanced degrees in anthropology. While few people with advanced degrees in anthropology are interested in working in management, I think one could make a good argument that an anthropology degree is much closer to the kind of training Chandra is looking for than that provided by the engineering and management schools which train most of his actual employees.
I think Bourdieu and Passeron do a good job describing the problem, but I don’t think they adequately explain how such institutional failure continues to be reproduced on an ever-expanding global scale. It might be that KPMG is the exception and that there really is a huge need for low level technocrats of the kind actually produced by most schools and that elite skills would actually be a problem for the companies seeking to hire these workers. But I find such a market-driven answer equally unconvincing. I tend to feel that there is a contradiction between the needs of employers qua employers and the needs of employers qua capitalists. As employers they need these skills, but as capitalists too many people with these skills would be a threat. I think that the current state of global higher education is the result of the working out of these contradictions.