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    John Warner is the author of Why They Can't Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities and The Writer's Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing.


Surviving in the 21st Century With a 20th Century Education

I was educated in the last century, and yet I'm thriving in the age of disruption. Are there lessons for those who worry about the "demands of the 21st century?"

February 21, 2019

I am concerned that any moment, the jig will be up for me. 

Objectively, things are going well. I’ve just published two books which seem to be getting sales traction, I recently started a new job as a senior analyst and communication strategist for a highly regarded marketing research firm, I write twice a week for this spot, and once a week for the Chicago Tribune

I’ve crested 10,000 Twitter followers. Let’s face it, the world bows down before me as it presents its oysters, or something like that.

But here’s my worry. I’m doing all this with a 20thcentury education. What happens if people find out that my schooling ended in 1997, before I even had my first AOL account? How can I possibly be meeting the demands of the rapidly changing world of big data and artificial intelligence? This whole thing must be a house of cards on the verge of collapse.

If you Google[1]“education + demands of the 21stcentury” you will be treated to a list of articles such as:

“Teaching Children to Think: Meeting the Demands of the 21st Century”

“Education, Globalization and the Demands of the 21st Century”

And, “Preparing Students for the Demands of the 21st Century.”

If you read some (or many) of these articles you will detect some themes.

“Basic skills” are no longer sufficient. Students must learn to “think critically” in order to “compete” in a “global marketplace.” Teachers also must change. The teacher role must be “re-defined” from being an “information dispenser”  to an “orchestrator of learning.”

We must have “measurables” focused on “progress” that “meet the demands of employers” in a “rapidly changing workplace.”

In many of these articles, invoking the “demands of the 21stcentury” serves as a kind of boilerplate, as in a piece I ran across from the American Enterprise Institute on “Rethinking the Teaching Profession” in which they declare towards the end (emphasis mine), “Ultimately, the goal is to rethink the teaching profession to meet the demands of the 21st century. We have been slowed by habits of mind, culture, and institutional inertia, but we are feeling our way toward a new and hopefully more fruitful era of teaching and learning.” 

Speaking of being “slowed by habits of mind,” I note that an entire article on rethinking the teaching profession is focused on “recruiting” and “identifying” good teachers, rather than considering how we might create systems and cultures which help all teachers improve on a continuous basis.


Obviously, the world has changed since I ended my formal education. I went to college with a fancy typewriter that would display 60 characters in an LED window before it hit the page, giving you a chance to adjust a quarter-tweet’s worth of text, and thus saving some money on correction tape. By the time college ended, I had a Macintosh computer. The Internet had started to shift the sector (marketing research) in which I worked after graduate school and now find myself again at the time I started teaching full-time in 2001. 

But even as I return to the field which has transformed in many ways (particularly when it comes to data collection), the core of the work, thinking critically about data and behavior, is unchanged, and it is as though I’ve never been away. 

My experience of teaching has been one of constant change, particularly in the realm of digital literacies and working with information in the Internet Age. The CRAAP test I used for years to help students navigate sources they were going to find primarily through library databases (because I was banning Google), has given way by necessity to Mike Caufield’s approach towards“web literacy.”

My approach towards teaching writing has gone through a slow-motion evolution until it apparently appears groundbreaking and even radical as collected in The Writer’s Practice.

And yet, the first experience in The Writer’s Practiceis to write instructions for making a peanut butter & jelly sandwich, an assignment given to me by my 3rdgrade teacher during the Carter Administration. 

I’m wondering if maybe, possibly, potentially, the reason I am able to succeed and adapt in the 21stcentury is because I am armed with a 20thcentury education, and if so, what is it about that 20thcentury education that is relevant, even necessary in the 21stcentury?

The community in which I was educated – upper middle class or better Chicago suburb – played a huge role. We had “good” schools with “good” teachers. In my other recent book Why They Can’t Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities, I argue that I learned to write in grade school, having been allowed to explore many different genres and write for authentic audiences. By the time I got to high school and was hemmed in by standardized assessments like the AP exam, I knew enough to play that game without being defined by it. 

Those advantages of my birth are important, but I have had many young people raised in similar advantages who do not appear to have had the same beneficial experiences. They have been subjected to a largely prescriptive, behaviorist system which had them grinding away at “writing-related simulations,” which above all caused them to be suspicious of writing as a route to developing one’s own ideas, one’s own mind. This is what worries me far more than any deficiencies they may have in their writing skills.

This is not an argument to simply turn back the clock and do things exactly like that past – I don’t do many things like I did I the past – but every time I read about the necessity of “21stcentury skills” and look up the author, they are like me, educated in the 20thcentury. Why was that education good enough for them to be able to make a living opining on what students need today?

The demands of the 21stcentury, combating rising income inequality, figuring out how we can address our rising seas are very real, and frankly scary. I occasionally worry we’re on a precipice. But the rhetoric of “21stcentury skills” has nothing to do with those challenges. It’s a scare tactic, a way to promote outright fabrications such as “65% of today’s Kindergartners will have jobs that don’t yet exist” made by those who want to take control of education, often in ways that further open them up to markets and make it less democratic or publicly accountable.

Even when we accept the ground rules of those who promote the 21stcentury skills framework, that these are necessary to protect employment prospects, we see that Liberal Arts graduates are doing just finewhen it comes to employment, and even better than many of their STEM-educated cohort.

Maybe one of the ways we’ll know if students have the 21stcentury skills they needs is if they’re able to see through the meaningless rhetoric of the "demands of the 21st century."


[1]Launched in September 1997, after I’d received my final degree the previous May.


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