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School. Uh. Huh. What Is It–Damn, That Doesn’t Rhyme

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Okay.  I slept in.  I made it all the way to six thirty.

My first instinct here is to start nitpicking, because, well, because I’m me.  I nitpick. 

And in nitpicking, I want to say that I never told anybody, Robert included, that people shouldn’t be able to major in history without taking “dance.”  Specifically “dance.”  I did say that nobody should be able to major in history without also knowing the history of art and ideas in the period they’re studying, but I feel the same way about literature–you shouldn’t major in literature without also knowing the history of ideas and events.

Dance is an unresolved issue for me.  The problem is that it is, like acting, a performance art.  And before the digital age, once the performance was completed, there was very little possibility to hold onto it.  You can have a history of painting because the paintings stand around for you to compare and contrast and put in order and classify.  Dance just goes away. 

I don’t think a history major needs to take courses in dance any more than I think he needs to take courses in painting.  The point of intellectual history is not to leap around a room or put oil paint on canvas.  It’s to see history from every possible perspective, not just the history of events.

The problem is, of course, that this is not just nitpicking, it’s beside the point.

To get back to the point:  Mary says she thinks it would be worthwhile for engineers to have a liberal arts background, and I agree.  I think it would be worthwhile for everybody to have a liberal arts background.

But I wasn’t talking about engineers, who tend to be already at a high academic level.

I was talking about people who want to be auto mechanics, radiologists, dental assistants–kids wanting to enter low-level practical fields of all kinds that, twenty years ago, required no time in college at all.

Why, exactly, are we requiring such people to get a “degree” and struggle their way through three semesters of English Lit, three semesters of “humanities,” etc, down the line? 

I do not agree with Robert that we should demand that some majors be required to prove first that they have a trust fund or a job before they can study.

I DO think that we should be upfront about what a liberal arts education–an actual college education–is. 

And that is not vocational.

The problem Sowell identifies exists not because we are producing a lot of pseudo-educated people with useless degrees, but because we have told those people that the degrees will be useful in a specific way:  in getting and keeping employment, and, what’s more, employment that is better than, and better paid than, what they could have gotten otherwise.

They feel entitled because we have told them to feel entitled.  We have said to them, “go to ‘college’ and you’ll have a career, you’ll be a success.'”

They don’t know what a college education is for, they don’t know why anybody actually studies the things an actual college education would make them study, they only know they are being put through a series of very expensive hoops on the promise that, at the end of it, they’ll get a “good” job.

When that turns out not to be the case, they of course resent it.  Why wouldn’t they?  Why shouldn’t they?

If we made clear that no such straightforward vocational link exists, we would have people–yes, even people without trust funds!–who want to learn what the liberal arts teach going to learn it and not worrying about whether or not it would be “practical” in the long run,  because the employment practicality of it would not be the reason they learned it to begin with.

Okay, that was a truly awful sentence.

And we could stop requiring people who want to do work that at most requires a short term of vocational training to get “degrees” that make no sense at all.

For what it’s worth:  Cheryl, in the US, the “proprietary schools” (the for-profits) mostly DO give degrees, usually BAs and BSs in things like business management, etc.

It’s our local community colleges that are giving out courses of study in things like auto mechanics and radiology.

There are a few for-profit vocational schools around–the oldest and largest are the secretarial schools–but by and large, in my part of the US, that kind of thing is the province of the local “community and technical colleges,” which are state-run.

My point, though, remains–somebody who wants to be an auto mechanic or a radiologist or a nursing aid or even a nurse shouldn’t be required to spend four years past high school in classes covering a smidge and smattering of philosophy and literature because they have to do that because…

Because it keeps the seats filled, and makes some institutions lots of money.

And as for the Sowell–no, of course I don’t agree with him.  But that was the point.

Tomorrow:  equality.

Or maybe tomorrow.

I have to go give a talk tonight.

Written by janeh

May 12th, 2011 at 7:56 am

Posted in Uncategorized

3 Responses to 'School. Uh. Huh. What Is It–Damn, That Doesn’t Rhyme'

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  1. Possibly it’s hard for middle and upper class parents to admit that their kids don’t belong on the college track. Getting your kid into college, especially a good college, tells the world that you’ve done a good job.


    12 May 11 at 11:25 am

  2. Anna has a point.

    My son has the intellectual gifts to be ANYTHING. Doctor, lawyer like his dad, chemist, engineer, architect, writer, computer programmer, scholar. Whatever.

    This week, he finishes a two-year course (at our local community college) that will lead directly to FAA certification for aircraft engine and airframe mechanic. Clearly a terribly necessary profession in our society, with good prospects because the average age in the profession is 54. He also took the necessary courses to get an associate’s degree as well.

    I couldn’t be prouder, but it took me a bit to get over the fact my son wasn’t going to be happy in one of the “professions.” He took the CC courses that were supposed to transfer to a four year university, but somewhere in there, the Cal State system stopped admitting any CC attendee that applied and started admitting only 15% of those who apply each year. They cut costs by cutting students, paradoxically. The state is about $200 million behind in their payments to the state university system, which may have something to do with it.

    Anyway, I guess my point is that both vocational and liberal arts (as defined by Jane) educations are out there, but you must seek and design them for yourself. Just stumbling along with expectations installed by what people tell you about college doesn’t cut it anymore. I always encourage my son to be an active consumer of *anything*, evaluating benefits on his own, disregarding advertising or conventional wisdom until it’s confirmed by real data.

    Of course, 90% of people just stumble along. But they always have, and probably always will. It’s the 10% that move society along, with energy, ambition and innovation.

    And I am very proud of my son. He found something he could embrace and do really well. It’s an honest living and he’ll have opportunities with his certification and pilot’s license that could lead to a great career. He’s much closer than I’ve ever been to being able to work at what he loves.


    12 May 11 at 1:23 pm

  3. Mmm. Actually, I agree that a historian should know somethng of the dance and art of the era–and the etiquette of different groups, the superstitions, the folktales and a lot of other things, and this despite being a military historian. Even war, diplomacy and politics are not practiced in isolation.

    What set me on the famous slow burn was a comment years ago that no one should be given a PhD–it may have been a liberal arts PhD–without a laundry list of studies, including Philosophy, Art and Dance, and if you don’t get the PhD, you don’t teach. It may not have been the intention, but it was the effect. And no, I’m not going to rummage through three or four years of blog and e-mail. If it wasn’t what you had in mind, then it doesn’t matter whether I misunderstood or you weren’t clear.

    There were never enough courses. There were never enough hours. And there was always someone in the university hierarchy with another time- and money-wasting “distribution” requirement, not intended to teach me anything at all, but to ensure my money went to needy departments.

    At a minimum, I wasted a semester’s worth of courses, and more in graduate school in a sort of collegiate welfare system having nothing to do with education. Proposing to heap the study of Pollard and the foxtrot on top of that seemed excessive.

    If a university still thinks of itself as an 18th Century finishing school, well and good for Fraternity Row and the trustafundians, but let the rest of us get on with training and education.

    But if the university truly insists that its graduates be familiar with Western Culture, than THAT is what it should insist on–specific courses or specific knowledge: Intro to Philosophy rather than “three credit hours from the Philosophy Department” for instance, and Western Civ I and II rather than “six hours of History or Political Science”–competently and rigorously taught, rather than being sloughed off as “the Department’s bread and butter course.”

    You can’t expect the students to respect education when the faculty and administration obviously don’t.


    12 May 11 at 3:57 pm

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