Tag Archives: professions

What is an education for? Remembering the American Revolution

History can remind us of just how expansive our ancestors could be, and how foreshortened our own vision has become.  One thing that makes our current discussion of higher education so difficult is the dramatic impoverishment of the range of our discourse about educational purposes: the narrower our frame of reference the more cramped our imagination, the more limited our creative responses to crisis, and the fewer our possible options.

Geoffrey Galt Harpham begins his sixth chapter with a citation from John Adams.

I must study Politicks and War that my sons may have liberty to study Mathematicks and Philosophy.  My sons ought to study mathematics and Philosophy, Geography, natural History, naval Architecture, navigation, Commerce and Agriculature, in order to give their Children a right to study Painting, Poetry, Musick, Architecture, Statuary, Tapestry and Porcelaine.

Of this particular citation and others like it, Harpham goes on to say,

[It] is worth recalling that once upon a time the ruling class–which had also been the revolutionary class–imagined that they were risking their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor in behalf of a futurity where what would come to be called the humanities would dominate the concerns of the citizenry.  They humanities, they felt, would represent the crowning achievement of a nation that, having prevailed in war, would build its new society on a foundation of such economic, political, military, and social security that citizens could enrich their lives by turning their attention to the study and appreciation of material and textual artifacts…Adams, Jefferson, and others believed that a general concern for the humanities represented not only the best possible future for the new nation but also the natural progression of mankind, if freed from fear and want.

 We are, of course, a long way from that vision now, our educational vision cramped by a cultural imagination that extends no further than security, economic security first and foremost, but other kinds of security as well.  The quest for security leads fathers to discourage their sons interest in poetry and philosophy and insists that they study business, or leads other students to declare as education majors so they “have something to fall back on”.  It’s worth noting that Adams spoke in a period far more precarious and insecure for the American Republic than anything we face today, and so our current obsessions and fears that education ought to be about employment first and always seems spiritually and ethically….empty.  In the midst of a national experiment that could still have failed, Adams was able to imagine that work existed for the higher purposes of education, rather than education existing for the “practical” purposes of work.

Not that there was no debate between advocates for what is now called professional education and what we continue to call the liberal arts.  It was, in some respects, ever thus, even if it seems more thus now than ever. Harpham points out that John Locke was a philosopher in favor of what we now call professional education and dismissive of the preciousness of the liberal arts.  Harpham also points out that it is a good thing the Lockes of the world did not win the argument and the Adamses did since no one would now be reading either one were it not for the continuing if weakened importance of a liberal arts education.

However,  I think there’s an irony in Adams’s formulation (and in Harpham’s appreciation of it) since it seems to assume that fear and want are defined qualities that can be addressed, finite needs that can be satisfied.  We live in a society that in some respects makes a living off the generation and regeneration of fear–the beneficiaries being our massive security industries–the prisons, the military, homeland security, gated communities, home security systems, and on and on.  We are also a culture defined by the generation of want rather than its satisfaction.  As much as I admired Steve Jobs, Apple is a company built on the generation of desire for things people never knew they wanted, and the iconic Apple is one small mythic reminder of the infinite allure of the new product hanging like fruit from the lowest shelf.

The irony of Adams’s formulation is that there is never any end of want, and our insatiable desires generate, at a minimum, the ongoing fear that we will somehow lose track of all our baubles or have them taken from us.  And our fundamental fears for our children have to do with the fear that they will have fewer baubles than we have.  And so finally, if want and if fear are potentially never ending–like the wars that Adams feels compelled to study–what room left ever for those higher human ideals that Adams deferred for himself. I think he deferred them unknowingly for his sons and daughters and granddaughters and grandsons as well. Are they not deferred always, if we begin with the belief that security is the means and education is at the end? In the world we have created we will never be secure enough for the poetry and philosophy that Adams at least desired for his progeny.

A couple of years ago I tried to think through my own rationale for the purposes of education.  You can listen to it here as you have interest:  Convocation Address: Education for Praise

We’re all pre-professional now

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.

Humanities and the workplace: or, bodysurfing the Tsunami.

As I suggested in my last post on the demise of Borders, book lovers have lived in an eternal tension between the transcendent ideals their reading often fosters and the commercial realities upon which widespread literacy has depended. The same tension is broadly evident in the Humanities response to professional programs or just more broadly the question of career preparation. We are not wrong to say that an education in history or English is much more than career preparation; nor are we wrong to insist that a college education has to be about much more than pre-professional training. (Not least because most college graduates end up doing things a long distance from their original preparation, and we ought to see that humanities in combination with other knowledges in arts and sciences is at least as good at preparing students for the twists and turns of their eventual career, and perhaps even better, than fields focused on narrower practical preparations

However we are absolutely wrong to assume that questions of career are extraneous or ought to be secondary to our students or our thinking about how we approach curricula.

Daniel Everett, dean of Arts and sciences at Bentley University offers a provocative refection on the need to integrate humanities in to professional education. According to Everett

“Programs that take in students without proper concern for their future or provision for post-graduate opportunities — how they can use what they have learned in meaningful work — need to think about the ethics of their situation. Students no longer come mainly from the leisured classes that were prominent at the founding of higher education. Today they need to find gainful employment in which to apply all the substantive things they learn in college. Majors that give no thought to that small detail seem to assume that since the humanities are good for you, the financial commitment and apprenticeship between student and teacher is fully justified. But in these cases, the numbers of students benefit the faculty and particular programs arguably more than they benefit the students themselves. This is a Ponzi scheme. Q.E.D.”

These are harsh words, but worth considering. I tend to not like Bentley’s particular solutions to the degree that they reduce the humanities to an enriching complement to the important business of, well, business. However, I do think we need to think of new ways of creating our majors that will prepare students for the realities of 21st century employment. Majors that allowed for concentrations in digital humanities would prepare students to engage the changing nature of our disciplines while also gaining technical skills that could serve them well in business. New joint programs with the sciences like those found in medical humanities programs could prepare students in new ways for work in the health care industry. Everett warns of what may happen of humanities programs don’t creatively remake themselves to meet the changing needs of our contemporary world:

“If, like me, you believe that the humanities do have problems to solve, I hope you agree that they are not going to be solved by lamenting the change in culture and exhorting folks to get back on course. That’s like holding your finger up to stop a tidal wave. Thinking like this could mean that new buildings dedicated to the humanities will wind up as mausoleums for the mighty dead rather than as centers of engagement with modern culture and the building of futures in contemporary society.”

Again, I don’t like all of the particular responses Everett has advocated, but I do agree that there is a problem to be addressed that continued proclamations about transferable skills is unlikely to solve. What is sometimes called the applied humanities may be a way of riding the wave rather than being drowned by it.