Thursday, December 16, 2010

Against Vocational Education, For Vocation

I have a piece up at "Minding the Campus" responding to a piece there (and in the Chronicle of Higher Education) that attacks the idea that all citizens need a university education, and - following the arguments of Charles Murray - suggests instead that most people should instead receive a form of "vocational" training. My abbreviated response is here, but I'll post my longer response here, below. I'm responding to Richard Vedder's arguments here and here.


I don’t disagree with the Richard Vedder’s basic argument that universities have become too expensive and too mediocre and too often the default for too many young people who might do well to pursue appropriate schooling through the secondary level. I wholly agree that too many university administrators, faculty, and politicians are seeking to preserve a bloated system that should be downsized and made more affordable. I agree that government funding has distorted the entire university system, from exhorbitant tuition rates to government-driven research agendas and increasingly in the form of micromanagement of university class time, textbooks and “assessments.” I agree that a reckoning is at hand.

However, I am deeply worried by the way that the reckoning in education is likely to pan out, in considerable part because of arguments like those advanced by Richard Vetter, Charles Murray and a host of other conservatives. In too many of these arguments, there is a strong equation of education (broadly) and job preparation, with the presumption that unless one is equipped with the native intelligence or disposable wealth and leisure to pursue a university education, then one’s education should consist dominantly if not exclusively of acquiring useful skills that can be employed in relatively menial labors. I am put to mind of the world envisioned by Kurt Vonnegut in his 1952 novel Player Piano in which America is divided between a workforce consisting of an “intellectual” workforce, all of whom hold Ph.D.s, and a workforce of menial laborers whose education leaves them stunted and ultimately politically restive.

In drawing a nearly exclusive connection between education and its economic benefits, such arguments reinforce a dominant view of education that has been implicitly advanced by universities for the past several decades and which is now embraced by most contemporary Americans – and, which arguably lies behind the need for a reckoning in education and more broadly our economic and social crisis. It is the tendency that Alexis de Tocqueville observed among Americans to reduce all matters – education included – to terms of raw materialistic calculus. We do well to recall another ideal of education, one that justified universal education for a very different set of reasons than those that now give rise to the critique of universalistic education. And, in recalling these reasons, we might also raise questions about the idea that there are differences in aptitude that condemn some set of students to an education almost entirely lacking in the liberal arts. It’s the very emphasis on careerism that is leading some educational theorists (ranging from conservatives like Charles Murray to liberals like President Obama) to seek the near-elimination of the liberal arts from a central place in the curriculum, whereas a differently conceived understanding of education’s end would insist on their centrality at every level, for every student, and for every vocational pursuit.

It is worth recalling that universal education was an American ideal born during the colonial period for reasons having nothing to do with job preparation. The first real move toward universal education was a 1647 law passed by the General Court of Massachusetts, popularly entitled “The Old Deluder Satan Act.” This act required any town consisting of one-hundred or more families to establish a grammar school where typically emphasis was placed upon the learning of Latin and Greek. It was believed by the New England Puritans that every American should have the ability to read (and write) in order to attain a knowledge of the Bible and thus be able to fend off the temptations of the Old Deluder, Satan. The early forms of “textbooks,” such as The New England Primer (or, later, McGuffey’s Reader) had as their explicit aim the teaching of grammar, but more deeply sought to reinforce the moral lessons of Christianity and the classical tradition. Thus, very young students would be introduced to the alphabet with such lines as “A: After Adam’s Fall, We Sinn’d All.” Universal education was instituted with the aim of fostering the moral character of students, including an emphasis upon human fallenness and our propensity toward sinfulness, an insistence upon moral purity and a call to act in imitation of Christlike selflessness in the service of the good of the community. Among the admonitions of these lessons was an avoidance of seeking narrowly private ends, whether personal or pecuniary. Rather, emphasis was on moral formation, rigorous intellectual training, codes of conduct, and the ideal of service to the common weal.

If one looks at the entrance requirements for a typical New England college during the colonial period, one is stunned by the incredible attainment of learning expected by colleges of grammar school graduates who at that point would typically be about 13 years of age. What students of grammar school were expected to master – not merely the elite who would go on to college, but every student educated in accordance with expectations of a liberally educated citizenry - far exceeded what is largely expected or attained by today’s college graduates. It turns out young people in most cases are capable of profound learning – if the goal sought is sufficiently demanding and integrated early enough into one’s schooling. One need only read the letters of ordinary citizens during this period (or, one can look at the letters written by ordinary soldiers during the Civil War) – the sorts of people who did not attend college but who belie the claims made by the likes of Charles Murray that such people are incapable of attaining the refinements of an advanced liberal arts education.

The problem, then, lies not in the ideal of universality of education, but the widespread transformation of the end that education serves. We can rightly point to the massive failure of universal education at the primary and secondary levels, but this has far more to do with a failure to understand the purpose of education (and its necessary reinforcement of the moral codes of families and communities) than the fact of universality itself. The goal of education toward fostering moral and virtuous members of their communities has been completely displaced by narrow utilitarian ends among students and moral relativism among the teachers. Indeed, in the effort to avoid the unpleasantness that accompanies debates over the requirements of a moral education, the only agreement that can be reached about the goal of education is that it should prepare students for gainful employment.

Education today is shaped by its end, and a society driven by private ambitions of materialistic gain can expect education to become diluted by a utilitarian ethic. The tool will conform to its end, and so education becomes defined by the ethic of the short-cut. Rampant cheating and academic dishonesty are now campus (and societal) norms (students learn ethics from widespread practices in sports and business, not from Aristotle and the Bible), and the professoriate in turn emphasizes that all norms and codes are simply expressions of arbitrary power that limit what should be our thoroughgoing autonomy. As David Brooks has noted, there is an absolute consistency between the moral relativism of postmodern academia and the careerism in the student body. The agreement between many on today’s Left and Right – that schools of every sort need to be doing a better job training students for their careers – will only reinforce, rather than challenge, this dominant worldview.

I agree that colleges bear much of the blame for their current crisis (indeed, are not without considerable responsibility for educating the class that precipitated the financial crisis that now ironically threatens their existence), and I hope and expect that they will have to change their current practices, including a serious effort to reduce tuition costs. The simple classrooms of yore did a better job educating students than the technologically advanced country club campuses are doing today, without producing the attendant pressures to get a high-paying job to pay off one’s college debts.

What disturbs me about arguments such as those found in the Vedder report is the implication that education should be fitted to the narrow vocational needs of airline attendants and cashiers, that an appropriate education will prepare them as efficiently as possible for a life of menial labor. I lament that a major thrust is afoot to dismantle whatever remnant of our older liberal arts tradition persists and to replace it with measurable forms of study that produce narrowly-trained careerists. We need virtuous cashiers and moral airline attendants as much as we need virtuous politicians and philosophers of Moral Philosophy who believe in morality. Rather, assuming a major reassessment of the role of education is in the offing, then it is not the ideal of universal education that should be the whipping-boy, but the belief that a society can flourish without a moral core at the heart of its educational mission.


Stephen said...

Two comments: First, what's especially disheartening about the "major thrust afoot [today] dismantle whatever remnant of our older liberal arts tradition persists and to replace it with measurable forms of study that produce narrowly-trained careerists" is that much of it comes from conservatives or appears in conservative publications. Just today, the Wall Street Journal (which is conservative, of a sort) ran an editorial by Jim Sollisch ("Out the FenĂȘtre") calling for the abolition of language requirements in universities (I'd link to it, but a subscription is required). A lot of his criticisms do make sense: Imagining that a college student can master a new language in just two years is silly, etc. But, his attitude boils down to this: the liberal arts should be a private matter, something one does in one's own time; the public realm of higher education should be restricted to what makes money. Sollisch's argument not only reflects the split between useful and useless knowledge but also the poisonous public-private dichotomy.

Second, I'm a little less sanguine about what exactly we can expect of every student even in a good school system, but I will agree that children are certainly capable of more than we give them credit for, if they are challenged.

Anonymous said...

Thank you, Prof. Deneen, for this articulation. Some friends in teaching here in Indiana (one at university level, other in secondary) recently told me of Indianapolis' planned privatization of the city schools. They said the model being chosen was that of the Edison schools. I think that this conservative view is rooted in your earlier observations about Stratification and Equality, and is driven by "conservative" elites. I see this privatization everywhere in Indiana - the former labor department to help you get a job (which is a computer-based system driven by the needs of the McDonaldesque corporations for another drone to fit a particular slot); in healthcare (if you can't afford your bill, you will be approached by a private corporation which will "help" you apply for assistance, rather than any adjustment being made for your personal circumstances); etc. The poet Richard Brautigan wrote "all watched over by machines of loving grace" - but what frightens me is the humans in charge, who seem less and less human - despite their "conservatism," they seem unmoored to any religious tradition I can recognize, certainly not the Catholic Church's - and more and more mechanistic, in service to the financialized economy and the rentier class. I wish I were wrong. It is most painful to be the victim of people more economically and socially powerful but with less of a soul than oneself.

The Eastvold Blog said...

In the early years of American public education, there were also separate institutions for what we now call vocational training. Young people who were going into a trade took an apprenticeship or learned from their fathers. It wasn't mere principle that kept public grammar schools from teaching "career skills"; it was the fact that there were plentiful other opportunities for the sort of instruction that would lead directly to financial gain.

I'm not sure, then, that I would attribute the entire metamorphosis of the modern university to greed. A more charitable explanation is that the university (and the community college as well) is expected to be all things to all people - a coming-of-age ritual for young adults, a source of quick training for people who need to start making money in a hurry, a place for the middle-aged unemployed or under-employed to go when they want to change careers, a resource for large corporations moving into the area who need a local workforce trained to do specific tasks, a catch-all for various research agendas, and on and on. Honestly, I'm not feeling too charitable toward academia these days. But the fact is that we do need to address the need for vocational training. Young people need both job training AND a liberal arts education equipping them to be citizens of a republic. Unfortunately, neither primary and secondary nor higher education has done an acceptable job of balancing the two. Perhaps it's time to try separating them again.