When Shakespeare describes a schoolboy lugging his burden, these five-hundred-year-old lines require no footnotes. The ways in which we civilize children are very conservative indeed.
“Learning” is not the center of school life. Elementary schools are socializing institutions. They teach children to behave in civilized groups. As a kid, you don’t get to go home when you learn the lessons of the day. If this were the case, all the bright kids would be gone inside an hour. Then they would devote their days to earnestly studying the complex topics that children find genuinely engaging, such as sports, cartoons, and video games.
No matter how clever they are, children are always kept in school till the bell rings. This teaches them to behave acceptably in large, bureaucratically organized institutions. They’re also kept there in order to free up the productive time of their parents. Their parents, in theory at least, are already civilized. They supposedly work in situations that are even more stiff and constraining than those of their children.
Today’s schoolchildren are held to grueling nineteenth-century standards. Today’s successful adults learn constantly, endlessly developing skills and moving from temporary phase to phase, much like preschoolers. Children are in training for stable roles in large, paternalistic bureaucracies. These enterprises no longer exist for their parents. Once they were everywhere, these classic gold-watch institutions: railroads; post offices; the old-school military; telephone, gas, and electrical utilities. Places where the competitive landscape was sluggish, where roles were well defined. The educated child became the loyal employee who could sit still, read, write, and add correctly—for thirty years.
Today’s young students are being civilized for an older civilization than our own. In hindsight, it’s clear that my elementary school did everything it could to avert the career that I have today. My working routine is nothing like class-work. It’s very much like the work of programmers and venture capitalists, those giddy myrmidons of a digitized economy. These people are intellectual entrepreneurs who have no institutional certainties and no well-defined titles or roles. They work, dress, and act like permanent grad students always denied tenure. As their contemporary, so do I.
An information economy requires constant learning. How can someone set up a business as, say, an SEO company, without spending a copious amount of time teaching themselves the relevant concepts involved.
That is why the wage value of a college degree increased radically during the tech boom, so that even liberal-arts majors often ended up in tech jobs. It wasn’t the hardware that mattered but the ability to recomplicate information flows, to cut losses and grab the next new thing. By mastering new concepts and skill sets, people in and around high tech stay employable. They are also strictly required to do a great deal of forgetting—primarily about their industry’s dead products, defunct companies, and severe financial busts.
In an information economy, prices and stock values are very volatile. Takeovers and acquisitions are endemic. Employee loyalties and management paternalism are archaic. Stock valuations bear little resemblance to the profits that a company can reasonably be expected to generate. These conditions are not regrettable accidents or oversights. They are an inherent part of the way an information society structures its civilization.
It’s not that society has grown colder or more ruthless. It’s that the doors and windows have been thrown open and the walls blown out, so that people, ideas, and money can dart in and out at the speed of light. An information economy is inherently low in backwaters, shelters, and sinecures.
It lacks cozy places where people can potter along for decades, engaged in some single activity with some predictable rate of return.
It follows that, in an information society, a formal education aimed at vocational success would not be about values or canons. It would lack eternal verities, moral codes, constitutional continuity, literary classics, and good old-fashioned national heritage. It would lack the very things that teachers and scholars traditionally consider the sacred torch that must be passed to the coming generation.