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  • I have this middle school student kid who is about to enter high school. Even after following her through the school system for eight years, I have scarcely a clue as to what she should be studying and learning to make something of herself. Not that it particularly matters; school authorities have already made most of those decisions for her. Even so, those choices she can make are fraught.

    Because she hopes to go to college, my daughter wants to go to high school and do well, but she doesn't really understand what happens there or how it might affect her. Instead of heading to high school, a classmate of hers is opting to go to a regional vocational school that teaches complex trades like environmental remediation, heating, ventilation and air conditioning technology, database administration, medical intervention and billing, and robotics. All practical and aligned with the current job market. Or so they say.

    Even though I know we need skilled workers, I have several problems with teenagers learning specialty occupations straightaway. One is that the job market will surely change. When my kid looks for work eight years from now, the hot jobs will be quite different than they are today, and nobody now really can say what they will be. They could include:

    Robot therapist. Pollinator. Trollbuster. Marijuana quality assurance specialist. Automotive aural ambiance associate. Invertebrate knowledge systems engineer. Anti-gravity vehicle technician.

    The other problem I have is that secondary schools and higher learning has become "pragmatic." Too many school curricula have been spiraling down a funnel of employability, steadily narrowing the scope of what students are taught. Choosing a class is cast as a career decision instead of an opportunity to become informed and broaden one's perspective.

    It's the economy, stupid. New, good jobs are being created, but more and more of them are highly specialized and embedded in corporate hierarchies. Even two or three years ago, did jobs like these even exist?

    Revenue Cycle Optimization Associate. Manager Physician Performance Research. Executive Support Center Associate. Meaningful Use Performance Manager. Payer Knowledge Team Manager.

    These are actual job openings posted at just one company in health care technology. What new jobs will be out there when my daughter graduates from high school, let alone college?

    What's the point of turning education into training if you don't know what to train students to do? What's wrong with pursuing knowledge for its own sake because it fascinates you? We are told (by business leaders and, increasingly, by educators) that a liberal education is a luxury we can no longer afford in today's competitive global economy.

    Actually, we can't afford a liberal education because it's gotten too damn expensive. Higher education itself has become a luxury item after several decades of tuition prices rising at triple the rate of inflation. Students facing tuition to the tune of $50,000 must choose schools, majors, and courses strategically if they ever hope to repay their education loans plus interest. And in America, student loans are the only type of debt that cannot be discharged by declaring bankruptcy. The economy grips workers and young people by their gonads and tells them, "Never mind studying history, geography, music, art, or literature. Take business, economics, and "practical" courses. Learn esoteric skills destined for quick obsolescence, or else flip burgers or wash dishes. Oh, and forget job security."

    My daughter—who loves animals, nature and traveling—has indicated she might like to be a wildlife biologist. That career entails science, math, a graduate degree, and unknown employment prospects. She also might want to be an artist, a writer, or even all three. How should she approach her education and what should I suggest that she study? Will she find herself waiting on tables as she tries to make a name for herself and get stuck there?

    Our times they are a-changing. Perhaps my kid's formal education won't matter much or for very long. At each fork in her path through life, she will need new knowledge. She will need to find out where to get it and then say "Learn me," early and often.

    @image: Chart by author of 2012 job opportunity data from Brookings Institution plus made-up statistics.
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