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.