Is school-to-work working?

Peter Smagorinsky is Distinguished Research Professor of English Education at the University of Georgia.

An old pal who is now a senior law partner told me his job included mentoring recently hired law school grads in the nuances of the profession. Being a lawyer involves so much more than law schools teach: how to gain a client’s trust, how to gain an adversary’s respect, how to work on a legal team. They need to know how to practice law, rather than simply know about laws.

Mentoring new hires is important in many complex professions. I was interested in what new lawyers need to know, and how they are taught in the context of law firms rather than law schools. Much of this work, he said, is accomplished in apprenticeship settings, with experienced lawyers modeling the navigation of the social world that drives legal work.

This reliance on on-the-job training led me to wonder, how well did law school prepare him for the actual practice of law? My friend’s answer: not at all. The respectable law school he had attended used the pervasive case-study approach based on the analysis and discussion of legal cases. This involved law students in hypothetical legal reasoning. A large gap, however, remained between theoretical, academic argumentation and how lawyers go about the actual practice of law.

I assumed, then, that law school prepared him to pass the bar exam, the final barrier between student and career. No, he said, it didn’t prepare him to pass the bar. Nor did passing the bar have anything to do with becoming a good lawyer.

I was struck by this acknowledgement that law school and the bar, both legendary in their rigor, were so disconnected from legal careers. I say this as one who works in a field, education, in which our university programs are widely believed to provide inadequate preparation for the classroom, even with extensive field experiences and student teaching under the mentorship of an experienced teacher.

Work realities are difficult to prepare for through academic courses, despite the new premise common among policymakers that only academic subjects that prepare people directly for jobs deserve public funding. Here, for instance, is Gov. Rick Scott of Florida: “We don’t need a lot more anthropologists in the state. … I want to spend our dollars giving people science, technology, engineering and math degrees. That’s what our kids need to focus all their time and attention on, those types of degrees, so when they get out of school, they can get a job.”

But let’s say that I get straight A’s in all of my science, technology, engineering and mathematics courses. Will I then be able to enter the workforce directly and successfully? I have doubts that solving abstract math problems in school will lead directly to a successful career as a computer lab technician.

An education, it turns out, serves purposes other than direct job training. In college, I got a broad liberal arts education that engaged me with history’s greatest thinkers and helped me reflect with care about the human condition. I consider that to have been great training for the life I’ve lived and, indirectly, the career I’ve undertaken. I had no idea in high school or college that I was preparing for a career as a teacher and, ultimately, a researcher; those decisions came later.

Assuming that school serves only as a site for job training misses the point of learning and the complexities of work. I think it’s far too costly an assumption to engrave in educational policy.