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What Might Education Be Like in a Post-Work World?

When we talk about a post-work society we usually have in mind the problem of adults — how they will get money to live, and what they will do with their time.

We never “think of the children.”

By this I mean that we rarely give much consideration to the fact that our ideas about education are almost entirely oriented to the demands of work as we know it.

A principal reason why schools exist is to “babysit” the young so that their parents can, in a world where home and workplace were separated in a way they had not been in the pre-modern world of the peasant and artisan, go work for a paycheck.

Moreover, those schools are organized in the expectation that the students will one day go to work themselves, on very particular terms. Consider the classical image of modern education, with its bells and rows and ditto sheets and the rest. In ways even more fundamental to the curriculum than the strictly defined academics (especially beyond the rather minimal literacy and numeracy required) there is a training in deference to authority figures placed on them by a bureaucratic organization whose heads are remote; attentiveness to time generally and punctuality in reporting to work specifically; uncritical acceptance of assigned physical placement and diligent performance of assigned, repetitive, often arduous tasks with no intrinsic interest to the person performing them; the tolerance of silence and tedium and delay of the meeting of one’s physical needs (eating, the use of the bathroom) to allotted times to avoid disruption to the working process; and the identification of self with “boss” and “workplace.”

And students are enjoined to strain themselves to the utmost to get good grades, etc. precisely because this is supposed to be their best chance of securing a better lot in the work force later in life, determining whether or not they end up working-class laborers or middle-class professionals and managers (with, perhaps, a shot at something more).

But what about when all that stops being relevant? When the parents no longer need the kids babysat while they are at work, and an upbringing centered on training to work in a nineteenth century mill, or competing in the “Rat Race,” ceases to be justifiable? It would seem logical that the way we educate the young would change with this.

Of course, so far I have talked about what we will need less of in our educations — and not what we will need more of, which is a harder thing to guess at, given the uncertainties about how such a society will be arranged. One should also acknowledge that education is an area where people tend to be extremely conservative, sticking with what they think is tried and true rather than rationally adapting education to current needs (hence, that nineteenth century mill worker-training in the twenty-first century; and one might add, the endurance of “Classical education” at the level of the ultra-privileged, long after it ceased to make any sort of practical sense), with all it implies for the likely slowness of change.

Still, it does seem easy to imagine that, especially in light of the technological changes we have already seen, and which will be much more advanced in a post-work society (otherwise we would never have achieved one), it is plausible that we will see school continue its shift from centralized physical locations, away toward remote learning at home, especially with parents more likely to be there. We may see at least a partial increase in the automation of teaching, while parents also become more involved, possibly making for much more individualized instruction.

One result is that we could see students acquiring knowledge and skills much more quickly. We might see this as enabling them to learn more — or be content with having simply imparted a “required” amount of academic training in less time, with pushing the learning effort beyond the point of diminishing returns having, again, lost its justification. Indeed, it is plausible that rather than everyone having to grind in the same way as hard as they can for as long as they can (longer, in fact, as they burn themselves out) as in today’s often mindless scramble after “success” we might see educational choices become more personalized, fitted to the potentials — and limitations — of the individual, and in the process not only produce a freer, healthier, happier generation, but one that might even be better-educated at the irreducible skill level for all the reasons discussed here, not least that they would have experienced education as something other than the grueling, discouraging thing that is the experience of so many today.

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Nader Elhefnawy

Nader Elhefnawy is the author of the thriller The Shadows of Olympus. Besides Medium, you can find him online at his personal blog, Raritania.