Real Education Need Not Be Only for the Elite

Everyone seems to think that college is all about jobs. Even former Labor Secretary Robert Reich, in a column on his blog this past Sunday, “Why College Isn’t (and Shouldn’t Have to be) for Everyone,” writes, “all too often the jobs they land after graduating don’t pay enough to make the degree worthwhile.”

That may be true, but it is a reductive view of the value of the college experience.

I suspect Reich knows that, but he doesn’t say it. Little of discussion about higher education today focuses on anything but monetary return, so it is not surprising that he sticks to the conversation as it is. After all, he’s also (in the first part of his article) talking only about college for a certain class of Americans, those who can hope to attend the “elite” colleges where connections are made that can influence the economics of a lifetime.

When Reich does get to writing about those other colleges that try to cloak themselves under the mantle of expectations for “elite” colleges, he elides class differences and their extramural impact, though he alludes to them, writing that the “biggest frauds are for-profit colleges that are raking in money even as their students drop out in droves, and whose diplomas are barely worth the ink-jets they’re printed on.” These colleges provide neither the nuts-and-bolts of education nor the cultural capital so long associated with the college experience.

Concerning the belief that a college education is the only way into the middle class, Reich writes:

This has to stop. Young people need an alternative. That alternative should be a world-class system of vocational-technical education.

A four-year college degree isn’t necessary for many of tomorrow’s good jobs.

For example, the emerging economy will need platoons of technicians able to install, service, and repair all the high-tech machinery filling up hospitals, offices, and factories.

And people who can upgrade the software embedded in almost every gadget you buy.

Today it’s even hard to find a skilled plumber or electrician.

Yet the vocational and technical education now available to young Americans is typically underfunded and inadequate. And too often denigrated as being for “losers.”

He’s right. As a teacher at a technical college, I’ll say that twice: He’s right.

But he’s also wrong—unless that vocational education is expansive enough to include a good dose of the liberal arts. If it doesn’t, we are simply creating a stronger two-tiered system than we currently have, consigning one group to support and allowing the other to compete to be “elite.” Vocational programs that focus solely on “skills” will not be, as Reich wants them to be, “creating winners.” They will be creating a greater class divide than we’ve ever seen.

Perhaps because he’s writing from a perspective of the upper and middle classes in America, Reich may not see the danger of limiting his discussion in the way that he does. He writes, “we continue to push most of our young people through a single funnel called a four-year college education.” That’s just not true, unless the “we” is seen as the already college educated middle class. Not only that, but Reich doesn’t account for those who never make it into the funnel in the first place, who are not “failures” for not going to college for few in their milieu have ever gone. Overall, a little fewer than 40% of Americans of working age have college degrees of one sort or another. Few of the remaining 60% think of themselves as failures—or would see their children as failures for not attaining degrees. They can be almost inordinately proud when their children do graduate (which is one of the reasons I love attending our graduation ceremonies), but they don’t see lack of a degree in quite the stark term of Reich.

What worries me in the new vogue of community colleges and vocational schools is that discussion about their value almost always ignores the cultural contribution (and the contribution to the individual lives of students) that can be made if the skills training is combined with a liberal arts education. Central to all degrees today at a school like New York City College of Technology is the general-education requirement. There is always pressure to push it aside, especially in two-year programs where the need to include more technical instruction is always felt, but that pressure has been resisted—so far.

Reich is an intelligent and important figure. I hope he will see that we all need to do more than argue for increased attention to alternatives to “elite” colleges, that we need to make sure that those alternatives contain more than training, that they focus on the education of a citizen (Dewey’s influence is surely showing, here), too.

In the past, a community-college degree has served two functions: First, it has provided technical and vocational skills that can lead directly to jobs. Second, it has provided a base for transfer into four-year programs, if the student so desires. My fear is that, by increasing focus on the former, we will lose the latter—and the greater education that its gen-ed base implies. If we do, the country will be the poorer for it.

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