In the above video, Salman Khan of Khan Academy makes predictions about the future of education. When I first saw the title of the video—”Year 2060: Education Predictions”—I braced myself to disagree since I usually find fifty year predictions to be too conservative. But early in the video, Khan reveals that many of his predictions will probably happen “quickly over the next ten years.” So I suppose he is just allowing himself a forty year margin of error.
Within this modified time frame, I agree with much of what Khan predicts. It’s a good video with a lot of interesting ideas. However, I do have some issues to raise.
Khan predicts the rise of a new “creative class” composed of artists and innovators. Given enough time, most of us will be members of this class. He arrives at this conclusion in a logical way: routine labor—both mental and physical—is increasingly being automated, so the only thing left for humans to do will be more creative tasks. Education will follow suit by preparing people to do these more creative jobs.
I agree with this assessment to a point. I do not doubt that in the future more people will be freed up to pursue creative activities. However, I don’t think this new reality will necessarily have anything to do with work or education in the traditional sense. As all artists know well, creating something new or interesting in no way guarantees that you will be compensated for your work. When people predict the rise of a creative class, they rarely stop to ask the attendant question: how many creators can the market really support? When it comes to appreciating art, we all have limited attention to donate. Just increasing the supply of creators is all well and good. But if we expect those creators to be paid, then we somehow need to increase demand as well, and it’s not readily clear how we’re going to do that.
In contrast with art, more practical innovations are always in high demand. But the process of innovation is difficult and in many ways mysterious. Education can help set the stage for innovation, but education on its own is far from sufficient. At times education can even be opposed to innovation, since education often reinforces established thinking through the use of a fixed curriculum. Even with the right education, can we reasonably expect the majority of the population to make a living as innovators? Or is true innovation, almost by definition, the domain of the few?
The most promising source of employment I can imagine might be research. Perhaps we will employ a lot of people to do research, as a calculated gamble. Only one person in a thousand might come up with something useful, but if that one discovery is fruitful enough, it could pay for the whole enterprise. It’s a plausible model, but could it provide full scale employment? Again, I’m skeptical.
I say none of this to detract from the inherent value of education. What I am questioning rather is the tenuous relationship between education and employment. Leagues of professionals will tell you that what they do in their career has almost nothing to do with what they learned in school. Moreover, plenty of our most successful people (innovators and artists in particular) never bother to complete higher education. Future technologies can certainly help to repair this disconnect between education and work, and this is no doubt what Khan has in mind.
But maybe this disconnect isn’t a problem that can or should be fixed—especially if we see massive disruptions in the job market. Maybe education will shift toward being even less utilitarian. Instead of career training, perhaps future education will be more explicitly just a source of entertainment, enrichment, and status. This wouldn’t necessarily undermine the basic structure of Khan’s vision, but it does reframe the issue.
Later in the video, Khan suggests, somewhat counterintuitively, that in the future teachers will be valued more. I find this possible, but in no way certain. He makes some interesting arguments for this proposition, but I think he leaves out a key consideration, namely the effect of “superstar economics.” Armed with the best possible technology, a few master teachers could extend their reach to where they effectively fulfill the needs of increasingly large numbers of students. Need I point out that on Khan’s own website, the architecture is built around essentially one teacher: Khan. When one superstar teacher serves an extremely large “class”, that’s great for the superstar teacher and not great for the employment prospects of teachers in general.
(video via Derek Yu)