Let’s Not Conflate Education and Job Preparation

Richard Vedder’s basic argument is sound: universities have become too expensive and too mediocre and too often the default for young people who might do well to pursue appropriate schooling through the secondary level. And as he writes, with too many seeking to preserve a bloated system, a reckoning is at hand.
But in the writings of Vedder, Charles Murray and a host of other conservatives, there is a strong equation of education and job preparation, and with the presumption that unless one is equipped with the native intelligence or disposable wealth and leisure to pursue a university education, then one’s education should consist dominantly if not exclusively of acquiring useful skills that can be employed in relatively menial labors.
We mustn’t draw a nearly exclusive connection between education and its economic benefits. It’s the very emphasis on careerism that is leading some ( from conservatives like Charles Murray to liberals like President Obama) to seek the near-elimination of the liberal arts from a central place in the curriculum. It is worth recalling that universal education was an American ideal born during the colonial period for reasons having nothing to do with job preparation. The first real move toward universal education was a 1647 law passed by the General Court of Massachusetts, requiring any town with a hundred or more families to establish a grammar school where typically emphasis was placed upon the learning of Latin and Greek.
If one looks at the entrance requirements for a typical New England college during the colonial period, one is stunned by the incredible learning expected of grammar school graduates, typically about 13 years old. Young people in most cases are capable of profound learning – if the goal sought is sufficiently demanding and integrated early enough into one’s schooling. One need only read the letters of ordinary citizens during this period (or look at the letters written by ordinary soldiers during the Civil War).
The problem, then, lies not in the ideal of universality of education, but the widespread transformation of the end that education serves. The goal of education toward fostering moral and virtuous members of their communities has been completely displaced by narrow utilitarian ends among students and moral relativism among the teachers.
A society driven by private ambitions of materialistic gain can expect education to become diluted by a utilitarian ethic. The tool will conform to its end, and so education becomes defined by the ethic of the short-cut. Rampant cheating and academic dishonesty are now campus (and societal) norms (students learn ethics from widespread practices in sports and business, not from Aristotle and the Bible), and the professoriate in turn emphasizes that all norms and codes are simply expressions of arbitrary power that limit what should be our thoroughgoing autonomy. As David Brooks has noted, there is an absolute consistency between the moral relativism of postmodern academia and the careerism in the student body.
I agree that colleges bear much of the blame for their current crisis (indeed, that they bear considerable responsibility for educating the class that precipitated the financial crisis that now ironically threatens their existence), and I hope and expect that they will have to change their current practices, including a serious effort to reduce tuition costs.
What disturbs me about arguments such as those found in the Vedder report is the implication that education should be fitted to the narrow vocational needs of airline attendants and cashiers, that an appropriate education will prepare them as efficiently as possible for a life of menial labor. I lament that a major thrust is afoot to dismantle whatever remnant of our older liberal arts tradition persists and to replace it with measurable forms of study that produce narrowly-trained careerists. We need virtuous cashiers and moral airline attendants as much as we need virtuous politicians and moral philosophers. Assuming that a major reassessment of the role of education is in the offing, then it is not the ideal of universal education that should be the whipping-boy, but the belief that a society can flourish without a moral core at the heart of its educational mission.

Patrick Deneen

Patrick Deneen is David A. Potenziani Memorial Associate Professor of Constitutional Studies at Notre Dame.

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