Tag Archives: 21st Century

Gibberish sprinkled with question marks: in nonsense is strength

Early on in Kurt Vonnegut’s 1973 novel Breakfast of Champions, the narration turns to the setting of the story: the United States of America. Vonnegut transcribes the first verse of the national anthem and concludes of America:

“There were one quadrillion nations in the Universe, but [America] was the only one with a national anthem which was gibberish sprinkled with question marks.”

Vonnegut goes on to say (of the national anthem as well as various other symbols of the country):

“Not even the President of the United States knew what that was all about. It was as though the country were saying to its citizens, ‘In nonsense is strength.‘”

In nonsense is strength. It’s a motto that can be applied to some of the casual commentaries on education that spring up every now and again in the national press. By casual commentaries, I mean those statements of address on the state (or future) of education from those outside of the education sector. Such commentaries are often from writers who have a weekly column to fill, but are sometimes from business leaders or entrepreneurs who have chosen to enlighten us with their unevidenced assumptions (see: TED talks).

One such example of the former is George Monbiot’s recent article in the Guardian, ‘In the age of robots, schools are teaching our children to be redundant’, which opens with this rhetorical flush:

“In the future, if you want a job, you must be as unlike a machine as possible: creative, critical and socially skilled. So why are children being taught to behave like machines?

Children learn best when teaching aligns with their natural exuberance, energy and curiosity. So why are they dragooned into rows and made to sit still while they are stuffed with facts?

We succeed in adulthood through collaboration. So why is collaboration in tests and exams called cheating?

Governments claim to want to reduce the number of children being excluded from school. So why are their curriculums and tests so narrow that they alienate any child whose mind does not work in a particular way?”

To borrow from Vonnegut, this is “gibberish sprinkled with question marks”. People have been making claims that jobs in the future are going to be so radically different to today for decades. If we’d have listened to the futurists of 1900, we’d have stopped training people to cut and style hair as, according to those futurists, hairdressers wouldn’t be needed by the year 2000:

Indeed, Monbiot is adding himself to the list of futurists claiming that the 21st century job is somehow peculiar to jobs of the past and present in needing “creative, critical and socially skilled” people. Even when I worked in fast food restaurants, I worked with people who needed and used those skills. (They also needed to be literate and numerate, despite what many people might think.) Quite why Monbiot thinks being creative, critical and socially skilled belongs exclusively to the future is beyond me.

Monbiot goes on to make other claims which simply don’t stand up under scrutiny, repeating the same old unsubstantiated assertions that commentators have been throwing out since the Romantic period: allusion to factory models, teachers ‘stuffing’ kids with facts, children learn in different ways, etc. These complaints are all answered with the same ideas that have echoed through time: let kids choose what they should learn, children’s brains are different so they shouldn’t have to learn the same things as each other, and that old classic: why can’t they just Google it?

Today, Caitlin Moran gave us her own cover version of this old standard in a Times column titled, ‘Why I should run our schools’ (£). For Moran, “jobs of the future require flexibility and self-motivation”. Again, how does that differ from jobs today? She iterates “two facts: (1) the 21st century job market requires basically nothing of what is taught in schools, and (2) everyone has a smartphone.” Of course, (1) is nonsense and (2) is another claim that we can just Google it. Monbiot and Moran both overlook the evidence that, as E.D. Hirsch says in summarising cognitive psychologist George Miller’s research, “to be able to use [Google] information – to absorb it, to add to our knowledge – we must already possess a storehouse of knowledge.” Daisy Christodoulou explains in detail why just you can’t just Google it, here.

Monbiot and Moran are both hugely intelligent people (I’ve enjoyed much of their writing on a myriad of topics), but they fall into the same trap as many amateur commentators on education in repeating the same old “gibberish sprinkled with question marks”, gibberish that appeals to and seduces casual observers of education. They certainly aren’t the first to do so, and they definitely won’t be the last. Because in nonsense is strength.

The 21st Century Job

“Sorry, Mr. Thompson, but we won’t be taking you forward to the next stage of the interview…” said the sharply dressed woman who had been conducting the morning’s aptitude tests.

“Ok. Thanks for letting me know.” I replied, my heart not quite sinking to the depths it had often sunk to last year, when I had first begun searching for a career after finishing my education. Those early rejections were pretty heavy, but after 11 months of being rebuffed by sharply dressed men and women, I’d sort of gotten used to them.

I picked up my blazer and turned to leave. As I did, I asked the woman what I had asked almost every interviewer previously.

“Oh, before I go… you couldn’t tell me what it was that let me down, could you?”

Her reply contained no surprises: “Of course. I’m sorry to say that you failed the maths aptitude test. Oh, and there were some grammatical problems with your written communication test too.”

Those had been the basis of many of my rejections to date. Still, I knew I had more to give than maths and grammar. I’m a creative person, I thought to myself. There is a job out there for me. It just hasn’t been invented yet.

My job hadn’t been invented yet. I knew it was true because my teachers at school had told me this. I first saw it in a video clip in assembly, but it was repeated throughout my school years by my teachers: we are preparing you for jobs that have not yet been created.

These words lifted me a little and they echoed through my head as I left the building through the revolving door, and made my way to the station.

As soon as I’d found a seat on the train, I flicked through the paper to the classifieds. There were a few vacancies worth applying for, but it seemed to be page after page of the same types of jobs. Notably, they were all jobs that had yet been created. In fact, they were pretty much all the types of jobs that had been around for years in some form or another. Where were all the jobs that hadn’t yet been created? All I was looking for was something new, something different, something that would leap off the page and say to me: This is the job for you!

I got off the train at my usual stop and took my usual walk of dejection back towards home. As always, I stopped off under the awnings of a row of local shops to light a cigarette before the final stretch. It was then that I saw it: in sleek black font on a white A4 sized notice in the window of one of the shops, the words:

Looking for a job that has not yet been created?

This is the job for you!

I looked around me for confirmation that this was a joke – a very elaborate joke, targeted very specifically at me. Was someone filming me? Had my friends set this up? But as I stared at the words, I realised that these are things I’d never expressed to anyone before. If I was honest, I was a little embarrassed that I’d failed so far in getting a job, so I always brushed off any questions from my friends on the topic. It wasn’t something we spoke about. So if nobody knew that these were the exact words that I constantly thought about, was somebody reading my thoughts? Ridiculous! Of course not! This is it, I thought. This is fate. I tapped the phone number at the bottom of the notice into my phone, already excited at the prospect of the phone call I was going to make in the morning.

“Ah, Mr. Thompson. I’m pleased to say that we’d like to offer you the job…” said the sharply dressed man, extending his hand towards me.

“Really? I mean… thank you!” I faltered as I shook his hand. “This is so… I’m so… thank you! I didn’t realise that the interview was complete. I mean, I thought there would be some… er, aptitude tests too?”

“Ah, no. We’ve learned everything we need to know about you. I can only assume from your enthusiastic handshake that you’d like to accept the position?”

“Yes! I mean, of course… yes, I’d be delighted to accept the position.” I knew I was meant for great things. I knew my creativity would be seen as a perfect fit by an employer who was looking for something special. I knew that I’d find a job that I could excel at. This job. This job was the one for me… whatever it was. Wait, what was the job? At that moment I realised that I had no idea what I was agreeing to. I didn’t know what it was that I’d just accepted. “Erm, I hope you don’t mind me asking, but what is the position exactly. I mean, what is the job?”

“The job? It hasn’t been created yet. As we said in the advert. But when it is created, we know that you will be absolutely perfect for it.”

“Oh… right. It hasn’t been…? So, er, what would I be doing then?”

“Nothing. Yet. Of course, when it is created you will have plenty to do.”

“Nothing? What do you mean? Do you mean I’ll get a salary for doing nothing? I don’t think I understand.”

“Haha! A salary for doing nothing! Very good! I don’t think we’d stay in business very long if we paid people for doing nothing, Mr. Thompson. Do you?”

“No, of course… I mean… what will you be paying me for then?”

“Oh, I thought I made that clear? We won’t be paying you, Mr. Thompson. At least, not until your job has been created.”

“So I don’t really have a job then? I mean, you won’t be paying me until the job exists, until you create the job? When will that be, if you don’t mind me asking you?”

“Well, we’ve been in business for nearly ten years and we’ve been hiring people for jobs that haven’t been created yet all that time. We hope to have a job created for our first employee in the next five years. That’s our aim.”

“What? You mean I won’t actually be working or getting paid for five years?”

“Oh, I think it will be longer than that, Mr. Thompson. We have over 250 employees. We hope our first employee’s job will be created in five years. Your job could be created in fifteen years. Perhaps even twenty.”

“Twenty years! I can’t afford to wait that long. I need to work now. I need to be earning money.”

“Yes, I understand that. I’m just… I’m just not sure that your particular skill set is suited to the jobs that you might get today. Your numeracy is lacking. Your literacy needs a lot of work. And the whole ‘creative’ thing is, well, a bit nebulous. Oh, I should also add that your world knowledge leaves a lot to be desired. And as for your basic comprehension… well, the less said about that, the better, eh? That’s not to say that, one day, there might be a job created where only the fuzzy quality of creativity will be really useful. And when it is created, it’s yours. But as it stands, in the world that we live in, there aren’t really a lot of careers that you’ll have access to, I’m afraid. And that’s where we come in. We’ve speculated on you and on future jobs and we believe that there is a strong likelihood that your specific – albeit rather limited – skill set will be matched with a job requiring that skill set in years to come. I suppose in the mean time… have you thought about going back into education and actually training for a current job?”

With those words ringing in my ears, I made my way out of the building and sauntered to the station.

Should I go back into education and train for a job that does exist? What if the jobs that haven’t been created are just around the corner? I put my ticket in the barrier, made my way to the platform, sat down on a bench and waited for my train to arrive, all the while these thoughts spinning through my mind.

I waited and I thought. I thought and I waited. And before I knew it, I was alone on the platform. Where was my train? I looked at my watch. I’d been waiting for hours.

On the other side of the tracks, a lone station employee swept the platform.

“Hello!” I called. The man looked up at me. “I wonder if you can help me?” I continued. “I’ve bought a ticket for a train and it hasn’t come. In fact, none of the trains that were scheduled to go to my destination have come. Do you know what’s happening?”

He cupped his hand around his mouth and called back at me. “Certainly, sir. I think you may have bought one of our Creative Saver Tickets? Is that right?”

I looked down at my ticket. “Yes. That’s right. It was the only ticket available for the service I wanted to use. What does this mean? Is this why my train hasn’t come?”

“Yes, sir. It’s a new ticket we have been offering. You’ll notice how reasonably priced it was. You pay that price because the train service you are paying for hasn’t been created yet.”

“I’ve paid… wait, what? It hasn’t been created yet? What on earth…? You can’t do that? I need to get home! I’ve paid for a train to get me home! I… I… need to get home! When… when will a train come that can get me home?”

“Oh, not until a service has been created, sir. Could be weeks. Could be months. I wouldn’t have thought it would be any longer than a couple of years. But when that service is created, you’ll be prepared, sir. You’ve got a ticket.”

And with that, the station employee got back to sweeping the platform, whistling to himself as he did so.