Philosophical Careers

Early in my presidential career, a colleague intent on giving me a finer appreciation of higher education recommended I read some of John Dewey’s works. I dutifully purchased a couple of his books. They sat on my dresser, unread, reproaching me, until this weekend, when I picked up “Democracy and Education.” Written in 1916, Dewey’s thesis speaks to the issues of career and liberal education.

There is a tension between the wish to prepare students for careers and educating them in the liberal arts. The discussion is often presented as a choice, an either/or that will put a student on one path or the other. In my earlier post about Wake Forest University, we see them trying to complement liberal arts studies with a gloss of career training.

Underlying these discussions is a concern that training students for careers is short-changing them, or somehow inferior to preparing them for civic life. Taylor Branch, in his first book about Martin Luther King, Jr., “Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-63,” discusses the tension between W. E. B. Du Bois’ goal to educate an African-American elite and Booker T. Washington’s emphasis on educating a wider group of African-Americans in the trades as a path toward the middle class. When I worked at Chicago Public Schools, I saw a similar tension among those advocating for Career and Technical Education (CTE) and those who wanted every student to go to college, as if the two were antithetical.

Dr. David Potash, my colleague at Wright College, touches on this debate in his latest blog post, “High Expectations for Higher Education.” Dr. Potash critiques Anthony Kronman’s view that Higher Ed is straying too far from the pursuit of wisdom. In Potash’s words, “If a college education can help a student to think seriously and then choose, whether this takes place in philosophy or accounting or nursing, then we have a successful education.”

Dewey brings the weight of philosophical argument to the debate. I regret not having read him sooner. In Dewey’s view, the role of education in a democracy is to prepare the young to take part fully in preserving and growing society. Vocational training is an important part of that education. In Dewey’s words,

Occupation is a concrete term for continuity. It includes the development of artistic capacity of any kind, of special scientific ability, of effective citizenship, as well as professional and business occupations, to say nothing of mechanical labor or engagement in gainful pursuits.

Dewey, John (2013-09-10). Democracy and Education (Illustrated) (Kindle Locations 5219-5221). Kindle Edition.

Dewey’s affection for “gainful pursuits” is in part informed by Aristotle. In the debate between vocational and liberal arts training, Dewey points out that Aristotle considered training in the fine arts vocational training. Dewey takes a broad, positive view of career training. In Dewey’s view, preparing students for careers is not the opposite of preparing them for participation in civil society. Instead, he sees it as the opposite of sloth.

The opposite of a career is neither leisure nor culture, but aimlessness, capriciousness, the absence of cumulative achievement in experience, on the personal side, and idle display, parasitic dependence upon the others, on the social side.

Dewey, John. Kindle Locations 5218-5219.

He believes that too narrow a preparation is undesirable. He says that providing a career orientation to education will “make school life more active, more full of immediate meaning, more connected with out-of-school experience.”  (Kindle Locations 5370-5371.) He admits that it will not be easy to do this. We are dealing with this challenge at HWC, where industry partners are telling us that in addition to the ‘hard’ industry skills, they want students who think critically and write well.

Our efforts will be worth it. If we can successfully synthesize the liberal and vocational arts, we can prepare our students for rich lives where they continually learn and adapt in their careers. Again, in Dewey’s words,

It signifies a society in which every person shall be occupied in something which makes the lives of others better worth living, and which accordingly makes the ties which bind persons together more perceptible— which breaks down the barriers of distance between them. It denotes a state of affairs in which the interest of each in his work is uncoerced and intelligent: based upon its congeniality to his own aptitudes.

Dewey, John. Kindle Locations 5376-5379.

To my forgotten colleague who pressed Dewey upon me, thank you for the suggestion. I spent a rewarding weekend immersed in the philosophical support for College to Careers.

Published by Don Laackman

Leader with non-profit, higher education, and private-sector consulting experience.

2 thoughts on “Philosophical Careers

  1. I would argue (hypothesize) that there is a high correlation between socioeconomic factors or which school you attend and the successful transition into the working world with a liberal arts degree. Meaning the degree may be secondary to where it came from. Case in point: my cousin graduated from Harvard with a degree in Political Science and went immediately to Wall Street where he eventually became a Managing Director at an investment bank. Not bad for the son of a public school librarian and a bus mechanic. I do not think they hired him because of his political abilities or knowledge, but rather because he was really smart and could navigate conversations on a wide verity of topics, or said differently, could fit in with affluent customers and associates. I do believe there is great value in a Liberal Arts education, but you have to be in the proper circles for it to be valued. If you look at Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs, I would place Liberal Arts squarely at the top with self-actualization and Career focused education somewhere between the safety of employment and self-esteem and achievement.

  2. When did the division between intellectual labor and manual labor become so drawn in debates over vocational education versus a liberal arts education, and how is it that intellectual labor should always be privileged above manual labor?

    An article I read a while ago (and which I cannot locate just now) points out that while extreme examples of intellectual and manual labor can be found at either end of the employment spectrum – from theoretical mathematics with (as yet) no real-world application to soul-crushing ditch digging – the fact is that most of the jobs that keep society functioning require a blend of intellectual and manual labor. (The article also points out that there are plenty of soul-crushing office jobs that are mindlessly repetitive.) Clearly, an auto mechanic must use abstract reasoning to diagnose and repair a car – let alone run a business – and charge a fair price for work performed. It is easy to imagine how courses in business law and ethics could enhance the vocational education of a mechanic.

    In my twenties I bought and drove a used Pontiac Phoenix. I knew it needed a few things – like new tire rods – and I was willing to make minor repairs as needed until I had saved enough to buy a better car. I took that car to an area mechanic on three separate occasions. He was a big older man who spoke with thick, old world accent. Twice while I paid for the repairs, he sized me up in the oddest way. The third time I took the car in for repairs he performed a quick inspection, returned from the garage, and stood in the middle of the waiting room, regarding me. I stood up. “Look. I cannot tell you what to do,” he said. “It is for you to do. But you will die in this car.”

    After my startlement passed, my heart leapt.

    I ditched the Phoenix.

    The mechanic dealt with me in good faith and in a way that went far beyond mere “brutish” repair work. Now, no single course in ethics – or even an entire degree in philosophy – can guarantee that all mechanics will conduct their businesses in good-faith, but the point about how most jobs that keep society functioning require a blend of manual and intellectual labor should be clear. And this observation serves as a transition to Paul’s comment.

    It seems to me that all things being equal, both vocational and liberal arts degrees can be situated squarely in the middle of Maslow’s hierarchy. Or both can be placed at the top. That is to say, there isn’t anything inherent in the credentials or the skill set that ensures one will attain self-actualization. I realize that Paul is not suggesting any such thing, and I mention this only to remark – as Paul does – on how the liberal arts degree (Sometimes? Often?) appears to rest upon the lower, presumably secured elements of Maslow’s hierarchy so that the opportunity costs of attending college are no longer a factor affecting choice in obtaining the degree.

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