Since Ancien history, parents have preferred to teach their children what they know, rather than entrusting them to specialized institutions. This is even how agricultural, rural and craft skills were passed on. And it wasn’t until the 17th century, in the Nordic countries first of all, that the idea of a school teaching the basics common to all arrived, and not just responsible for enabling children to read religious texts, as the various churches and religions had been trying to impose for at least 2000 years. At the time, there were still a few chagrined souls who refused to entrust their children to such schools, preferring to teach them themselves what they believed to be essential. Such was the case of the young Blaise Pascal and (to some extent) his sister Jacqueline, whose father took care to teach them the sciences that the religious schools would not listen to.
Throughout the centuries that followed, schools represented a tremendous liberation from the constraints imposed by obscurantist religious teaching. It still does, on many continents, and sometimes even in Europe, particularly in France, where home schooling has even been banned to protect children from sectarian aberrations. Teaching remains a very serious profession.
At the other end of the spectrum, another trend has emerged. First in the United States, for universities. A few highly successful entrepreneurs, such as Peter Thiel, co-founder of PayPal and one of Facebook’s first investors, launched a program in 2011 to give high school graduates the means to create their own businesses without having to go to university. More recently, along with others, Peter Thiel has been leading a much more frontal campaign against the most prestigious universities. He believes that, in exchange for poor-quality training that is not at all adapted to future market needs, they are putting young people into debt (at least $100,000 per student). He advocates the development of short vocational studies, so that students can learn skills on the job that no university can offer.
He’s not alone: in France, many young people who have failed in the conventional school and university system are experiencing dazzling success in parallel private schools, where students learn with their peers, particularly in the fields of coding.
Now it’s going much further: major companies, mostly American for the time being, are scouring middle schools for promising high-school students, telling them that they have no interest in higher education, let alone going into debt for it, since the professions of the future are not taught in universities. This is despite the fact that the company could hire them right away, pay them a good salary, train them for 2 years and hire them as soon as possible in future jobs, without them having to waste their time learning things that will never be of any use to them. This phenomenon is no longer tiny; it’s still marginal. It profoundly challenges the very model of higher education, and tomorrow of secondary education.
Business schools and universities would be wrong to ignore this trend. It comes at a time when, unlike at least 2,000 years ago, the jobs that young people will be doing are unknown. And this doesn’t just apply to computer science and biology. Everything is undergoing major change. Universities are increasingly losing their legitimacy to teach. We can already see this with the major importance that internships have taken on in training curricula. To the point where many schools are little more than placement centers for their students.
To survive, they will have to accept a revolutionary principle that has long been self-evident to me: training is a socially useful activity, deserving of remuneration. One of the world’s oldest professions, that of doctor, has known this for a long time. And students will need to be remunerated right from their first years of study: to achieve this, universities will have to forge ever closer partnerships with companies, or become companies themselves (and not education companies); at the risk of being accused of “commodifying” higher education. They will need to be at the cutting edge of research and innovation. They will have to train their teachers continuously for the jobs of the future.
As Thomas Lilti’s lovely recent film puts it: teaching will be, more than ever, “a serious business”.