I’ve been catching up this evening on backlog of reading I’ve stored on Instapaper. (I’m thinking “backlog” might be the right word: I don’t think you can have a “stack” on an iPad). A few weeks back Cathy Davidson down at Duke University had an interesting piece on whether College is for everyone. Davidson’s basic thesis, as the title suggests, is no. Despite the nationalist rhetoric that attends our discussions of higher education–we will be a stronger America if every Tom Dick and Henrietta has a four year degree–maybe, Davidson suggests, maybe we’d have a better society if we attended to and nurtured the multiple intelligences and creativities that abound in our society, and recognized that many of those were best nurtured somewhere else than in a college or university:
The world of work — the world we live in — is so much more complex than the quite narrow scope of learning measured and tested by college entrance exams and in college courses. There are so many viable and important and skilled professions that cannot be outsourced to either an exploitative Third World sweatshop or a computer, that require face-to-face presence, and a bucketload of skills – but that do not require a college education: the full range of IT workers, web designers, body workers (such as deep tissue massage), yoga and Pilates instructors, fitness educators, hairdressers, retail workers, food industry professionals, entertainers and entertainment industry professionals, construction workers, dancers, artists, musicians, entrepreneurs, landscapers, nannies, elder-care professionals, nurse’s aides, dog trainers, cosmetologists, athletes, sales people, fashion designers, novelists, poets, furniture makers, auto mechanics, and on and on.
All those jobs require specialized knowledge and intelligence, but most people who end up in those jobs have had to fight for the special form their intelligence takes because, throughout their lives, they have seen never seen their particular ability and skill set represented as a discipline, rewarded with grades, put into a textbook, or tested on an end-of-grade exam. They have had to fight for their identity and dignity, their self-worth and the importance of their particular genius in the world, against a highly structured system that makes knowledge into a hierarchy with creativity, imagination, and the array of so-called “manual skills” not just at the bottom but absent.
Moreover, Davidson argues that not only is our current educational system not recognizing and valuing these kinds of skills on the front end, when we actually get students in to college we narrow students interests yet further:
All of the multiple ways that we learn in the world, all the multiple forms of knowing we require in order to succeed in a life of work, is boiled down to an essential hierarchical subject matter tested in a way to get one past the entrance requirements and into a college. Actually, I agree with Ken Robinson that, if we are going to be really candid, we have to admit that it’s actually more narrow even than that: we’re really, implicitly training students to be college professors. That is our tacit criterion for “brilliance.” For, once you obtain the grail of admission to higher ed, you are then disciplined (put into majors and minors) and graded as if the only end of your college work were to go on to graduate school where the end is to prepare you for a profession, with university teaching of the field at the pinnacle of that profession.
Which brings me to my title. We’re all pre-professional now. Since the advent of the university if not before there’s been a partisan debate between growing pre-professional programs and what are defined as the “traditional liberal arts,” though in current practice given the cache of science programs in the world of work this argument is sometimes really between humanities and the rest of the world.
Nevertheless, I think Davidson points out that in actual practice of the humanities in many departments around the country, this distinction is specious. Many humanities programs conceive of themselves as preparing students for grad school. In the humanities. In other words, we imagine ourselves as ideally preparing students who are future professionals in our profession. These are the students who receive our attention, the students we hold up as models, the students we teach to, and the students for whom we construct our curricula, offer our honors and save our best imaginations. What is this, if not a description of a pre-professional program? So captive are we to this conceptual structure that it becomes hard to imagine what it would mean to form an English major, History major, or Philosophy major whose primary implicit or explicit goal was not to reproduce itself, but to produce individuals who will work in the world of business–which most of them will do–or in non-profit organizations, or in churches and synagogues, or somewhere else that we cannot even begin to imagine. We get around this with a lot of talk with transferable skills, but we actually don’t do a great deal to help our students understand what those skills are or what they might transfer to. So I think Davidson is right to point this out and to suggest that there’s something wrongheaded going on.
That having been said, a couple of points of critique:
Davidson rightly notes these multiple intelligences and creativities, and she rightly notes that we have a drastically limited conception of society if we imagine a four year degree is the only way to develop these intelligences and creativities in an effective fashion. But Davidson remains silent on the other roles of higher education, the forming of an informed citizenry being only one. Some other things I’ve seen from Davidson, including her new book Now You See It, suggests she’s extremely excited about all the informal ways that students are educating themselves, and seems to doubt the traditional roles of higher education; higher education’s traditional role as a producer and disseminator of knowledge has been drastically undermined. I have my doubts. It is unclear that a couple of decades of the internet have actually produced a more informed citizenry. Oh, yes, informed in all kinds of ways about all kinds of stuff, like the four thousand sexual positions in the Kama Sutra, but informed in a way that allows for effective participation in the body politic? I’m not so sure.
I think this is so because to be informed is not simply to possess information, but to be shaped, to be in-formed. In higher education this means receiving a context for how to receive and understand information, tools for analysing, evaluating, and using information, the means for creating new knowledge for oneself. To be sure, the institutions of higher education are not the only place that this happens, but it is clear that this doesn’t just automatically happen willy-nilly just because people have a Fios connection.
What higher education can and should give, then, is a lot of the values and abilities that are associated with a liberal arts education traditionally conceived–as opposed to being conceived as a route to a professorship–and these are values, indeed, that everyone should possess. Whether it requires everyone to have a four year degree is an open question. It may be that we need to rethink our secondary educational programs in such a way that they inculcate liberal arts learning in a much more rigorous and effective way than they do now. But I still doubt that the kind of learning I’m talking about can be achieved simply by 17 year olds in transformed high schools. Higher education should be a place for the maturing and transformation of young minds toward a larger understanding of the world and their responsibilities to it, which it sometimes is today, but should be more often.