The Double Helix of Learning and Work

3.5 Learning and Work: A Parallel History
A close examination of the components that make up a pair of “inseparable antinomies” (as one author described the dichotomic and contrasting polarities that are still inextricably linked, such as education and work) reveals an unexpectedly complex picture of relationships. Even if one calls “education” one thing and “work” another, as two distinct activities that only succeed each other, they actually have many things in common.

First and foremost, they are both long and compact stages covering large portions of a person’s life: education for 10-20 years and work for 30-40 years. Other than early childhood and the years of retirement and old age, the two stages stand for the entire significant life of an individual.

They both take place intra mums, behind closed doors, and in relative isolation. The schools, on the one hand, and the enterprises or offices, on the other, are more or less clearly delimited enclaves. A homogeneous population displaying common features inhabits each of them: pupils for one, workers for the other. They both have strict disciplinary rules that specify precise obligations and exclude or limit liberties. Barracks and the hospitals are probably the only comparable enclaves. Until it is understood and accepted, discipline is imposed from the outside and is perceived as an encroachment on personal freedom.

The reaction of the “natural” human is comparable to that of an animal subjected to domestication. The pupil is like a young horse about to be saddled, while the worker is like a horse pulling the cart. Evading the rules brings public opprobrium on the rebellious child and on the socially unadapted individual alike. Education and work are socialization and professionalization processes. What would a child or a worker have felt for centuries, when brutally awakened from sleep in the morning in order not to be late for school or work, other than the unpleasant pressure of coercion?

However, neither of the two structures is a caprice of a society bent on controlling its members by sheer terror, nor is it a gratuitous demonstration of power on the part of the controlling institutions. Individuals do need to become familiar with the symbols and tools that make up their own environment. The only serious problem is that poorer countries cannot afford to transform those imperative requirements from tough constraints into enjoyable and ludic activities.

The two structures are eminently hierarchical, vertical, pyramidal, with supreme leaders and intermediaries whose authority cannot be questioned. They give orders; they do not make recommendations. Both activities are programmed and standardized (the curriculum, on the one hand, and the production programme, job description, and operations manual, on the other). Incentives, motivations, and rewards play an important part in both of them, but there are also reprimands, punishments, and fines. The pupil is provided for by his family or by the State, while the worker earns his own living. The attitude of society is gentle (in principle) towards pupils, who are viewed as the future of the nation, but it is less affectionate towards working people (they are not told that they are the wealth of the nation).

Both activities have been increasingly regulated through legislation. They are supervised by rather bureaucratic institutions that function within a complex legal system. Road maps, performance evaluations, personal files, certificates, and permits have been devised for those two stages of an individual’s life (education and work). It is not only the rigidity of the laws that makes them conservative; there is also an engrained loyalty deriving from affiliation with a certain school or company. Each of them provides the individual with its own reasons for taking pride in being “one of us”: history, tradition, and recognized accomplishments. There are élite schools and “blue chip” enterprises. Both are deemed to pursue quality and excellence.

Pupils in schools have fewer means to resist inequity, exploitation, or abuse compared to workers in enterprises (e.g., crippling strikes). Working people are adults with legal rights, while young people have guardians and cannot, therefore, have recourse to the law. There are other differences as well. The unforgiving laws of the market sweep away inefficient enterprises by driving them into bankruptcy, while schools are seldom closed for reasons of poor performance.

The schools are closely watched by government inspectors; their budgets are under constant scrutiny; but they do not have an acute sense of competitive pressure, which is crucial in the sphere of work. The parallel is restored, however, when reference is made to the social environment. Neither education nor work can break out of the parameters of a society’s level of civilization; they cannot ignore the constraints of existing resources. General mentality, attitudes, values, and beliefs specific to a particular culture are the limits to which both teachers and managers voluntarily subscribe; so do the pupils and the labour force. When a culture is adverse to innovation and change through an addiction to traditionalism or mythology, arbitrary policies, futile constraints, and abusive suppression of fundamental human rights, the task of both education and work becomes impossible. The outcome is stagnation and paralysis.

“The information revolution – which ranks third after the agrarian and the industrial revolutions – is about to change education at least as much as it has changed industrial production or the service economy.”

The parallel between education and work as described so far can be identified in the evolution of the classical economy. In the second half of the Twentieth Century, the pace of change was reflected in what we call the technological, social, and economic revolutions as well as in the value scale of mentalities and culture. The question here is not so much about historical similarities but rather about the way the two activities have responded to the great challenges of the time.

Far-reaching processes such as division of labour and specialization have an impact both on education and on work. School programmes tend to restrain generality and to encourage specialization, the same as work does. Neither the increased use of energy nor mechanization has influenced schools, even though they have transformed the nature of industry and work. One cannot claim that trade unions have only affected work, since teachers have been quite vocal in their demands concerning the organization of education. In exchange, the information revolution – which ranks third after the agrarian and the industrial revolutions – is about to change education at least as much as it has changed industrial production or the service economy. The explanation is simple: the computer is a tool of the intellect with a decisive role not only in knowledge application but also in knowledge assimilation. It is the tool that assists learning.

Here is a relevant example. What we call ICT (information technologies combined with communication technologies) has reached a level of development and accessibility that make two simultaneous processes possible: distance learning (DL) and distance work (DW). Both de-localize activities from their time-honoured sanctuaries: the school and the factory.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights introduced the idea of dignity as a goal of the accomplishment of humankind. This goal is another common feature of education and work. The new trends in the analysis of work accuse the old schools of neglecting dignity. The behaviorists also denied the importance of dignity as a quality that gave meaning to work. At the level of motivation, dignity plays an important part in education as well as in work; it gives a sense of satisfaction beyond material rewards or social recognition.

Currently, learning and work are two activities that are not only related, similar, comparable, and interdependent – as they used to be throughout their long and troubled history – but they have also become partners that are capable of playing interchangeable and complementary roles.

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