Thursday, February 01, 2007

Murray 2: Vocational Education … AND Liberal Arts

The second of Charles Murray's recent Wall Street Journal series was entitled "What's Wrong With Vocational School? Too many Americans are going to college." This combines a feature of Murray's argument that I agree with the most, with one that I think is completely wrongheaded.

One of the most admirable parts of Charles Murray's argument about IQ, in The Bell Curve and in this series, is that all kinds of occupations are noble, and are good things for smart people to do. The main thrust of the Bell Curve was not really about the bottom of the IQ distribution, though that got the publicity (along with a minor part of the argument concerning race). His main point, though, was that our educational system had become very efficient in sorting nearly all high-IQ students toward a handful of occupations. A "cognitive elite" is being created that is getting narrower and more exclusive. Some high-paying professions, such as law and investing, are drawing a bigger share of smart people than their social utility deserves, impoverishing other fields; Murray favors engineering. America was worse off, he argues, in the days when smart people were held back from advanced education by sheer poverty and discrimination. But the silver lining of that dark cloud was that smart people were spread over more occupations.

Therefore, I agree with Charles Murray that vocational education is honorable. Vo-tech training is good schooling for a job. I would rather deal with people trained for their work than have them make it up – or even to have them try to guess how their liberal arts education can be applied to a technical problem. And for students who don't want, aren't ready for, or aren't up to a demanding liberal arts college curriculum, vocational education is an honorable and sensible alternative. It benefits them and society.

I teach at a demanding liberal arts college. We do not offer vocational education. Many students, probably most of them, think that the justification for college is to get a better job. This is wrong, and I tell them so early and often. They pick majors on the basis of jobs they hope it will connect to. Doubly wrong. At a liberal arts college, everyone "majors" in the liberal arts. The curriculum is not about this job skill or another. The point of a liberal arts education is to grow wiser and of better character. In some students, this aim is not realized, at least not at the time. But it works often enough, and shapes students over their whole lifetime, in a way that vocational education can't.

I agree with Charles Murray that work, and vocational training are honorable. But I also think that everyone could benefit from a broad education that helps them become wiser and of better character. Moreover, society needs a broad, wiser, and virtuous ruling class. Liberal arts education and vocational education are both needed in society and even in each person.


halifax said...

I, too, teach at a demanding liberal arts college, and, while I agree with your assessment of the intrinsic value of a liberal arts education (and I believe that liberal education is the only type of education worthy of the name), I am more skeptical of its value to every human being. As you noted earlier in the blog post, there are many (if not most) students in college today who are really more interested in some type of card-punching utilitarian training than in liberal education.

Those students not only get little out of their time in college, but also undermine the seriousness of the educational endeavor for others. I don't have any answers, however, because students and their parents recognize that a degree from a demanding liberal arts college does in fact have utilitarian value, and, thus, these students and their parents will continue to insist upon attending, despite their lack of interest in what is taking place.

Of course, it often happens, as it did in my case, that a student who begins with a purely vocational sense of the university will actually learn to appreciate the intrinsic value of the liberal arts. These 'converts' tend to turn out 'more Catholic than the Pope', which might explain my own perspective to some extent.

Gruntled said...

I agree that quite a few students make "the lump" in most classes, who don't truly see the value of their education at the time. Most of them would be better off with a few real-world years first. However, I have had a sufficient number of alumni come back years later who retroactively value their education. Just this week I had a fellow ten years out say he was now reading the books I had assigned then, some of which he hadn't actually gotten to the first time around. This gives a teacher hope, and a long perspective.

Edith OSB said...

I have many minds on this topic, and disagree with myself regularly.

I teach at a less demanding college. The majority of our students are, essentially, in 4-year vo-tech programs: nursing, pre-OT or PT, secondary education, management and computers. We call ourselves a liberal arts college, but the students who are majoring in LA are outnumbered for the first 2-3 years of their education by the hordes of professional-program students.

The latter group see no reason for the Liberal Arts requirements, lack both curiosity and critical thinking capacity. Many leave after 1 or 2 years because they recognize the lack of fit. Society might be better served by increasing 2-year technical nursing programs and phasing out programs like ours.

I then remind myself that, somewhere in this mix, are those who will become planners and supervisors. The sociology they perceived as a checklist item in college may shape their thinking and ability to frame an issue of patients' rights, workplace organization, or community planning.

I am certain that we have many students here who are simply not ready - intellectually or maturationally. It seems immoral to take their tuition when we can predict their failure so accurately. They deserve better advising and access to training for equally noble but less abstract occupations. We don't have a way of helping them find that out, except by taking them in to the college and letting them fail.

Gruntled said...

This brings up a question that I have wrestled with often. Does everyone think? Does everyone (ok, everyone with an IQ over 85, let's say) have the capacity for normal thinking and even for critical thinking?

What are people's brains doing when they are not thinking? (I mean this as a serious question -- it is a real puzzle).

LMR said...

Your comment was almost exactly what I said to my husband (who forwarded the articles to me). Despite holding a PhD in the social sciences and having spent most of his career as a professor, he sees very little value in liberal arts education. Anyway, I feel better now that my position in our argument has been reinforced.

Anonymous said...

I found Dr. Murray‘s series of articles about intelligence and education very thought provoking. Although his comments are persuasive, I urge your readers to pause and think carefully before acting upon any of Dr. Murray’s conclusions.

We have over time sought to govern ourselves – at least in the United States – according to principles which better reflect our aspirations for society than our more practical understanding of human behavior. Prime among the examples supporting my point is our founding principle that all men are created equal. Even the fourth graders of below average intelligence to which Dr. Murray refers intuitively know that this principle is not supportable with facts. This unrealistic expression of hope informs our approach to many social issues, especially education.

Further support for the value of impractical social ideals can be found in an examination of the debate over the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Even those who presented valid arguments against the ADA acknowledged the very noble purpose for which it was put forward. It is neither practical nor efficient for us to devote great resources to making new and existing buildings more easily accessible for the benefit of a small fraction of our population. And yet, we must all be proud that more of our fellow citizens can independently enter and work in our buildings.

If we promote the lofty ideal that we are all created equal, then it follows that we all have the ability and the right to learn. For at least the last several decades of U.S. history, advancement in economic and social status has been closely tied to obtaining a college degree. Efforts towards education are not only about social status, however. The idea that the act of learning at any level is an end in itself is a signature understanding of our best teachers. Day upon day, educators at less celebrated institutions throughout the U.S. are motivated by this understanding to keep up efforts towards engaging many students with little chance for any resulting academic success. These educators know that building up even a few students among many is a noble achievement.

A job in the trades remains an option for those of us with college degrees. Although some of the IQ-limited students Dr. Murray identifies may be better served by starting vocational training earlier, I bet most would prefer the chance to at least explore their academic potential. As several European and East-Asian countries now demonstrate, trying to determine too early whether a given student should be directed to vocational training rather than college prep tends to stunt creativity in the national economy. Here in the U.S., late bloomers are often welcome in both the laboratory and the board room.

I tend to think that many intelligent students are indeed being left behind. If the U.S. ever does reach a status in which most of our wasted efforts in education can be clearly attributed to students of low intelligence, we can then look to Dr. Murray’s observations for some guidance.

Steven Weseman
Arlington Heights, Illinois

Gruntled said...

A Murray himself notes in many works, one of the best features of American education and American society is that we give any number of second chances. Unlike most other educational systems, ours lets people explore several alternative tracks without much penalty except the time it takes. This applies to people of all levels of intelligence.