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.