The historian Adam Guelzo addresses one of my favorite (hobbyhorse?) concerns this morning in the Wall Street Journal: the decline of the liberal education as a liberal education into job training.
The idea that education should be geared towards getting jobs (essential and noble but more on that in a sec) is one that has support in all segments of society, except possible when President Trump proposes to expand vocational schools.
Guelzo begins by quoting David Leonhardt of the New York Times as saying that we should not be expanding vocational training and should instead aim for more four-year graduates.
Leaving aside the matterof President Trump, we can ask how well four-year colleges and universities doing with regards to educating the populace in "the best that has been thought and said"? Guelzo writes:
Mr. Leonhardt is pitting vocational education against the ideals of higher education—independence of thought, breadth of knowledge and understanding. It’s not hard to see how important these ideals are to a democracy, in which political sovereignty lies with the people at large. If the people are ignorant or fixed only on grubbing for a living, they may make awful—and irreversible—mistakes.
The problem is that so little of those ideals really operate in most of American higher education.
Judged by the catalogs, curricula and websites of American colleges and universities, American higher education already is vocational. The number of degrees in nursing, social work, education and the holy quartet of STEM—science, technology, engineering and mathematics—vastly outweighs those awarded in the humanities, which is where we’re supposed to find the pure arts of thinking. One out of every five bachelor-level degrees is in business—which is to say, accounting, marketing, management and real estate—while one in 10 is in a health-related field.
. . .
Even education in the humanities has become vocationalized, although the transformation is subtle. Take almost any college or university literature department at random, and its faculty will be composed of people who have been trained in other college and university literature programs to be literature professors. History majors are, in department after department, seen—and taught—as future history professionals, whether in museums or colleges.
Leonhardt's criticism of expanding what is more traditonionally seen as vocational training might be the result of dislike of the president and a failure to realize that graduates of the great universities are also taking vo-tech–just in different fields:
I wonder if the real complaint about Mr. Trump’s praise of vocational education is that his interest in the “wrong” vocations—“trade, manufacturing, technology”—and in the wrong places.
College-based vocationalism is still vocationalism; there’s no intrinsic difference between peeling a spud and popping a vein. But it is a vocationalism of merit, defined by testing, credentials and cultural signaling. In this version of vocationalism, the four-year college experience becomes a path by which the talented and brainy are induced to abandon their neighborhoods, churches and families to become the next generation of staffers for multinational corporations and nonprofits. Either you arrive already equipped with merit (through your meritocratic parents and your meritocratic college-prep program) or you are cherry-picked to receive it, and thereafter spurn the base rungs by which you do ascend.
Why the meritocracy’s college-based vocationalism should be considered superior to Mr. Trump’s vocationalism has little to do with dollars and cents and a lot to do with the cultural imperialism of the meritocracy. Mike Rowe, creator of “Dirty Jobs” and “Somebody’s Gotta Do It,” was perplexed to find that even in the depths of the Great Recession small-business owners hung out “Help Wanted” signs in all 50 states, but couldn’t find people to hire. Why? Because of “the stigmas and stereotypes that dissuaded people from exploring a career in the trades.”
Some of the disdain for reviving vocational training then, as Guelzo argues, is because, in addition to being advocated by Trump, this involves jobs that the elites don't regard as socially acceptable.
I'd like to go off in a slightly different tangent–of course, if our country is to remain successful, people must find jobs after college. But the liberal arts should introduce students what Matthew Arnold, quoted above, termed the his"the best which has been thought and said." This is the sine qua non of citizenship. And it is no hindrance to further professional training to get a job and sometimes is in itself preparation for a job (SiliconValley has begun to recognize that even we useless English majors can be good hires!).
It is also important that everybody receive a basic education in the skills that make good citizens–the people who attend Ivy League vo-tech schools and those who attend the vocational schools President Trump would expand. Bringing back civics and emphasizing basic literacy in all schoolsare important if we are to continue to thrive as a nation. This can be done in early grades. We should not consider that people who are not going to college should receive less education in the foundational values and skills of citizenship.