Higher Education Should Be More Than Vocational Training

An interesting piece of educational legislation is now working its way through Congress, the Student Right to Know Before You Go Act.  A rare bill that has support from both Democrats and Republicans, it would create a database of college graduates’ salaries, the colleges they attended, and their majors.  It is believed that, with more information in hand, students will be empowered to make better choices about which schools will most benefit them, which majors to seek out—and which ones to avoid altogether.

The thinking underlying the bill prompts some questions.  Will this legislation, if enacted provide a market-based impetus to expand certain colleges and majors—or dramatically shrink or eliminate others?  Will this, in turn, convert more of our nation’s colleges and universities into vocational programs in all but name because all those learning experiences that we traditionally associate with higher education will get stripped away by a single-minded pursuit of the best outcome as measured solely by a paycheck?

It is, of course, already true that we sell higher education to a lot of students with the implicit—or explicit—promise that a college degree equals a more financially secure life.  The great expansion of higher education in the United States after World War II can, in fact, claim to have helped to produce the best educated and best paid workforce the world has ever known.  Every moment of every day, students are enrolling in courses, entering majors, and completing degrees and certifications in the hope that this dream for a better life can be theirs as well.

However, we must begin to ask ourselves if we need to take a closer look at the thinking underlying both the legislation being contemplated and our narrowing conception of the purpose of higher education.

I have, I must first point out, no problem whatsoever with the proposed legislation.  Information is, after all, power.  For those students who are in school simply for the paycheck down the road, it makes sense to know the earnings of graduates in specific majors at specific colleges.  Nonetheless, we may, in our zeal to apply market-based discipline to our system of higher education, be heading down a path that, a few years hence, we will realize has produced a society less socially mobile, citizens more intellectually narrow, and a workforce less able to be flexible within a world economy that will be increasingly about nothing other than rapid change and the ability to navigate those changes.

We will, it is certain, need a workforce comprised of broad and agile thinkers and doers.  However, what does this mean in terms of the type of post-secondary education that will be necessary to produce these thinkers?  Will it be more necessary to be able to analyze a poem or write a marketing analysis?  Will knowledge of the plays of Shakespeare be more or less useful that learning how to shake useful data out of an Excel spreadsheet?

When it comes to attending college, the practical choices often seems to trump the artistic—perhaps only because many parents who are footing the bill for school don’t want their children living at home forever.  Certainly, although there are artists who are able to make a living, that living often is dependent, either directly or indirectly, on taxpayer-funded grants that we decide are useful because we want pretty objects in our public spaces and a play or musical performance to attend in some charmingly renovated and re-purposed downtown building that would otherwise be an eyesore.  In that regard, mom and dad have a point.

However, that being said, the creation and appreciation of art is not simply about making our daily lives a little more pleasant; we need artists to help us look at our world with a new set of eyes—and we also need all the poetry and Shakespeare we can jam into our colleges and universities because preparing for a career at school is not only about learning a set of vocational skills.  To be sure, education that goes beyond the vocational allows us to live happier and more satisfying lives because, simply put, ignorance is boring and knowledge is fun—but it also has the definite side benefit of better preparing students for productive lives and careers.

The sheer joy inherent in all knowledge—of learning, trying out new ideas, and picking ourselves up for another try if those new ideas fail—is precisely what we need in our fluid and fast-moving 21st century world if we want to be economic leaders and market innovators.  Therefore, we must learn to be both vocational and artistic—to meld the sensible and the seemingly impossible—in order to continue the practical creativity that produces a society that is economically agile, socially open, and nimble enough politically to both support individual aspirations and maintain a cohesive social fabric.

We cannot do this if we continue to see the vocational and the artistic as economically antagonistic sensibilities and view art as something best appreciated along with a platter of wine and cheese instead of a lunch bucket.  This snobbish and short-sighted sensibility harms both our social fabric and our economy, and it needlessly pushes colleges and students to choose between that which teaches a skill and that which grows our souls

The artistic and the vocational are not in competition—and learning to use them together in both the college classroom and our workplaces will make our lives better in both environments.  We need colleges that can train welders and ballet dancers, accountants and poets, and nurses and painters because our practical work is often directly enhanced by those “impractical” arts that allow us to relax, to grow—and sometimes even learn those critical additional skills that enhance our ability to do our jobs.

I will never forget attending a conference where a pediatric plastic surgeon—one who worked with the most severely malformed babies—talked about how he took up the study of sculpture in order to learn how to better reconstruct the skulls and faces of babies who—the truth be known—were horrible to behold.  As a result, he was able to make these children as beautiful as any other baby on this earth and bring their loving parents to tears when they saw what he had done for their children.  That doctor was, in a manner of speaking, a perfect blend of what we need today, tomorrow, and for all time to come—an individual who can think, plan, and execute with two sides of their brain at once.

Before young adults pick a school and a major based simply on the numbers on a downloadable spreadsheet of salaries, it might be worth reminding each young person that the job they train for today will likely not exist by the time they retire.  They will—as we all will—have to learn to be the artists of their own lives by pursuing a plan of study that will prepare them for a lifetime of engagement, learning, and challenges they cannot yet foresee.  To be truly prepared for a life that is both economically secure and personally satisfying—each inextricably bound to the other—it is necessary to read a little Shakespeare, make a little art, and write a few poems along with learning vocational skills while in college.  Only in this way will both halves of the brain combine to produce a whole greater than the individual parts.

Also published in The News-Gazette (news-gazette.com) May 5, 2013

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