Higher education should be more than vocational training

Higher education should be more than vocational training

By Andrew Wilk

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 an excellent knowledge of the plays of Shakespeare be more or less useful than 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 repurposed 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.

Those who are able to wed the practical to the artistic are a wonder to behold. 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.

Andrew Wilk is a former teacher at Urbana High School and a regular commentator on education issues. He can be reached at amwilk01@comcast.net.

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45solte wrote on May 05, 2013 at 11:05 am

Well, there's only so much $ the workers bring in to support the lifestyles of 'creative' others who choose low-to-no-demand college majors.

“At first, I thought, ‘Why should I be on food stamps?’” said Magida, digging into her dinner. “Here I am, this educated person who went to art school, and there are a lot of people who need them more. But then I realized, I need them, too.”


spangwurfelt wrote on May 05, 2013 at 1:05 pm

You don't exactly have to have studied the complete works of Aristotle to know the difference between "here is an artist on food stamps" and "going into art means going on food stamps."

45solte wrote on May 05, 2013 at 5:05 pm

Win-win, huh. Artists no longer have to be 'starving.' Not when thriving out there is a well-nurtured sense of entitlement that allows people to indulge in what they believe they're owed no matter the financial choices they have made (choosing a particular college major is, well, a financial choice). Nice that artists now have the choice to 'do the ramen-noodle thing' or not. Let's hope the removal of this element of struggle from their lives does not compromise the angst-driven elements of their work.

45solte wrote on May 05, 2013 at 11:05 am

 We wouldn't be functioning if we didn't already use 'both sides' of our brain at once. It would be a tough argument to make that this will evolve out of humans if Fiber Textile and Weaving Arts schools cease to exist. Just-so metaphors, ideology vs. hard reality...at the root of what ails education in the US today. When you pick an economically viable major (they do exist and won't be going away by the time you finish college) you secure some leisure time that affords artistic pursuits in art, Shakespeare, and poetry, should you find them palatable. College professors do not welcome the new reality. The reality of the 21st century and the coming of their obselescence. The fiercely protected bubble world of many will burst.

spangwurfelt wrote on May 05, 2013 at 1:05 pm

Remind me - did Michelangelo paint the Sistine Chapel between gigs at the local coffee shop? Did Beethoven write his string quartets on weekends when he wasn't building furniture?

45solte wrote on May 05, 2013 at 5:05 pm

What were the various contexts (economic, philosophical, social, political, historical etc.) of the Renaissance relative to today? Go ahead and get all the degrees you want, no matter their economic viability. Just don't turn around and complain that having to pay back student loans is unjust. Don't turn around and 'oh-well, I can always live on food stamps'-it once you're tending bars with your PhD in philosophy. It's unsustainable, particularly during depressed economic times, such as those currently (and with no change in sight). Too bad the 'academy' today turns out 'enlightened' students who 'tend to be lacking.' Unless financially independent or planning a government assistance lifestyle, eventually the 'enlightened' will have to meet with the (real) working world.


Danno wrote on May 05, 2013 at 5:05 pm

I'll remind you of two things (I was not there and, just gussing you weren't):

1) There were no 'Coffee Shop' Guilds then.

2) Describe a 'furniture' that Beethoven constructed under the direction of a Master Woodwoker of the Guild.

Sid Saltfork wrote on May 06, 2013 at 12:05 pm

Attention should be paid to the vocational, and artistic apprenticeships that provide training, and employment in some European countries.  Germany, Austria, Switzerland, and others provide training, and apprenticeships for both vocational, and artistic employment with businesses, and governments.  A Ship Crane Operator, Art Restorer, Furniture Maker, etc... are some of the occupations among many that guilds, and businesses train apprentices in.

I was pleasantly surprised that manufactures in Minnesota realized that there was a shortage of trained Sewers for fabric assembly so they created a training program with scholarships.  After completing the 20 week course, the graduates are guaranteed employment to eliminate the shortage of trained workers.  Employers currently are complaining about the lack of trained workers in many occupations.  The partnership of business, and education meets the needs of the employers while providing work skills in demand for the underemployed, or unemployed.

The continuance of some majors in the community colleges is deceptive.  How many Massage Therapists, and Web Designers will C-U employ?  Unless the graduate is willing to move to some other geographic area that has a demand for those occupations, the local job market is swamped.  Prospective students should ask to see the annual job placement reports on majors.  It would show the number of graduates, and those who found employment in the major.  All community colleges, and universities should be providing their job placement reports to prospective students, and parents.  Both students, and parents should be taking advantage of the federal employment information regarding occupations also.  There is a wealth of information available to the prospective students if it were organized, and explained by secondary school counselors, community college counselors, and university job placement officers.

Danno wrote on May 08, 2013 at 4:05 pm

Again; Ca<->rp! Guess my Sally Struthers Certificate in CSI Procedures won't get me too far here in Champaign County. I'm still awaiting proper documentation for premenant residency in Negril, Jamaica, for employment. Sally didn't provide job opportunity data; guess my imagination took hold, Mon:(

Sid Saltfork wrote on May 08, 2013 at 9:05 pm

I am thinking about wearing red socks to my next interview.  The commercial says that the red socks school grads get jobs.