Rethinking the ‘gospel’

Penn professor Marvin Lazerson says America needs to update its education syste

Penn professor Marvin Lazerson says America needs to update its education system — and scrap the old model of “vocationalism.”

Stay in school and get ahead.

Go to college to get a good job.

Be sure to learn some practical skills for the “new economy.”

All of these are components of what Marvin Lazerson, the Howard P. and Judith R. Berkowitz Professor at the Graduate School of Education, refers to as the “gospel” of education: the theory that education can fix social and economic ills, improve social status and prepare students for the workplace.

But in their new book—“The Education Gospel” (Harvard, 2004)—Lazerson and Berkeley Professor W. Norton Grubb argue that theory doesn’t stand up to empirical analysis.

“This is a system of beliefs that Americans have held for more than 100 years about schooling,” Lazerson told a tightly packed audience Nov. 11 at the Penn Bookstore. “This notion of a global, information-driven society has emphasized the importance of school in terms of future economic development.” The belief, he continued, is that “school is the place you go to achieve economic and social mobility.”

The American “gospel” of education, Lazerson and Grubb write, reinforces vocationalism—a system where schools respond to prospective employers’ needs by teaching students skills to prepare them for the workplace.

Lazerson outlined how four different kinds of educational institutions—comprehensive high schools, four-year colleges, community colleges and job-training programs—have moved to this flawed vocational model.

But more schooling doesn’t necessarily mean people will be better prepared for their jobs. In their book, Lazerson and Grubb note that between now and 2010, only 30.2 percent of new jobs will require more than a high school degree and slightly more than 27 percent will require more than a small amount of on-the-job training.

While high schools initially took shape in the early 20th century to prepare young people for access to the labor market, Lazerson said that market has essentially disappeared. “That has left high school as a worthless institution,” he said. “The only real function is to get people in college.”

Four-year colleges, he noted, have increased their professional training and as a result, most students major in professional programs. Community colleges—what Lazerson calls “one of the noblest experiments in American society”—are woefully underfunded and must compete with work and family for students’ attention. As for job-training programs? “No one gets jobs based on [them],” he said.

While more schooling can lead to individuals achieving greater economic success, he said, “It’s not just schooling. Where you go to school matters.” He adds that more colleges and universities should combine practical and civic training with the liberal arts to avoid a narrow education.

For Lazerson, this combination of professional and liberal arts is something Penn does exceedingly well. “It’s one of its great strengths,” he says. “When Penn is working at its best, its professional programs are connected to liberal arts.”

Originally published on December 9, 2004