21st Century Skills? More like 18th Century Skills

This post is the third and final one of a Growthology series on Human Capital and the Economy, by Christopher Laubenthal.

Components one and two of this blog series outlined the problems and solutions provided in a current selection of six books on human capital. We concluded that, over the past decades, the types of skills required in our economy have shifted, but our skills have not. Solutions proposed by the books we analyzed center on creating hubs with businesses at community colleges for teaching high-need skills in the medium-term, and updating curriculum and teacher training in the long-term.  Here, I’ll provide my own commentary on these ideas.

None of these solutions is new or ground breaking. For example, the 21st century skills human capitalists call for are really just 18th century skills with the addition of a computer. Did Henry Ford[1] not want critical thinking skills or reasoning in his teams? Were teachers in 1851 not interested in the ability to make an argument? Did the pilgrims not desire problem solvers? The answer, of course, to all three questions is, “yes.” I believe the same can be said of increasing teacher rigor and supporting local educational institutions like community colleges. Educational resources like rigorous content, sharp teachers, and strong educational institutions are important, but that does not mean that these ideas or goals are new.

Given that these skills have been around so long, why haven’t they taken root countrywide? As many solutions as human capital books provide, there are probably more obstacles. A full cataloguing of those obstacles to change in education policy or administration is outside the scope of this series. Nonetheless, we can certainly identify the largest, likeliest stumbling block to any change: the status quo.

Our system of teacher pay scales, pensions, schools of education and school district structure have not changed fundamentally since the mid 1950's. To increase local control outside of charter or private schools, and to improve teacher programs are large issues requiring a great deal of coordination, development, and time. The result is that change either doesn’t occur or it becomes hyper-localized with one program or one person.

To address the disconnect between ability and opportunity, a gap that will grow starker as technological complexity increases and demand for middle-skill jobs decreases, these solutions cannot fall to side like so many policy suggestions. Their answers of increasing the rigor of education through content and administration so that over time more people move into high-skill jobs and create new high-skill jobs through innovation are good ones. These solutions are bold, far reaching, and might provide sustainable innovation through strong human capital.

With time we will know if the claims human capitalists make about technology and the hollowing-out of the labor work force are correct and by extension know if their solutions were needed. Until that time comes I would posit one simple question: aren’t these suggested changes to education good enough for our economy to consider regardless?

[1] “"An educated person, I think, is one who not only knows a lot, but knows how to do a lot of things." Henry Ford

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christopher laubenthal

Christopher Laubenthal is a program officer in Education for the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, where he works to explore topics around data, education, and human capital through grants and programs.