This Notable Notes post is devoted to the idea of higher education, specifically its role in educating our future workers and citizens. This is in response to repeated attacks on higher education, especially liberal arts and the humanities, throughout the United States – and more recently here in Kentucky. This is a continuation of my protests (see Don’t Fail My Students and The impact of Kentucky’s proposed budget on education) about the possible future of education in Kentucky if Gov. Bevin has his way.
I am not going to argue about the importance of a college education for a large percentage of our population. Most people seem to understand the basic value. In fact, sometimes we place too much emphasis on higher education and send kids to college whose goals and interests would be better served by vocational training or some other post-secondary experience — or perhaps simply delaying college until they are sure of their goals — but that is a topic for another day.
Instead, this is an argument asking: What is college for? Many of my students come to college with the simple goal of punching their ticket, because they believe that a college diploma will guarantee them a lifetime of success. That is why I like to have conversations about how a college education differs from vocational training. We read articles such as this one by Paul Corrigan, “Preparing Students For What We Can’t Prepare Them For,” and talk about the value of training skills and information that may be (most likely will be) obsolete versus learning “soft skills” such as critical thinking, ethics, philosophy, and information literacy that can help them update their skills and knowledge throughout their lives. There are no professions that remain static and unchanging and one of the primary advantages a four year degree offers over vocational training is more time spent helping students learn how to be lifelong learners. Kentucky and other states considering shifting their focus to support vocational training at the cost of higher education are short-changing the future of the entire Commonwealth and placing the United States as a whole in a precarious position within the global economy.
Certainly there are some hands-on professions that are best served by a vocational approach, but the majority of professions from health care to engineering to business demand more as Tom Eblen wrote recently: “success requires innovation and working with people, not just machines.” Forbes contributor Jordan Shapiro describes these demands in his interview with Fareed Zakaria, author of In Defense of a Liberal Education, “Here’s Why Nothing Prepares You For The 21st Century Like A Liberal Arts Education.” In “Why America’s obsession with STEM education is dangerous,” Zakaria points out it is not skills for your first job that are important, it is the skills that will remain important through your sixth job, and argues that quality learning experiences provoke thought, build knowledge, and develop exposition. He further argues: “The United States has led the world in economic dynamism, innovation and entrepreneurship thanks to exactly the kind of teaching we are now told to defenestrate.”
In “The Value of a Liberal Arts Education in Today’s Global Marketplace,” Oregon State University President Edward J. Ray continues this argument based on the qualities that employers want. “No one knows what the jobs of the future will be, but a liberal arts degree provides a great foundation for adjusting to new careers and further education.” While some politicians, such as Gov. Bevin, would argue that we need to focus more on technical skills there is much evidence that the humanities matter now more than ever as Adam Frank points out in “What Is The Value Of An Education In The Humanities?” I love his closing paragraph:
“In a changing world, the question is no longer merely technical subjects vs. the humanities. Instead, students must understand that the world they are emerging into is rife with new challenges. Addressing those issues will require understanding both the pervasive technological and scientific foundation of our society, as well as the human beings who populate it.
Gina Barreca argues in “Humanities Are At The Heart Of Real Education” that advocating for the training of workers rather than for the education of citizens is a grave mistake both for the workers and our society because we need the humanities to unite, inspire, sensitize, and enlighten. If you are looking for further understanding of why the humanities matter you should review the Humanities Matter infographic.
I would argue in the end that it is critical thinking and creativity that will protect American jobs and ensure American progress in the future. Technical skills are important, but they cannot be taught to the exclusion of the humanities. We need a balance. I love the metaphor used by Cathy N. Davidson when arguing why STEM is not enough. Think about the flower. It needs the stem to survive, but it equally needs the bloom. Nature and life at its most basic level requires this balance, and humans and society at our most advances levels do as well.
What value do you place on a liberal arts education? Which is more important for our future: technical skills or the humanities — and why must we choose? How can we strive for more balance?
Education will drive Kentucky’s future and we need to do more if we want to do better. If you think Kentucky can and should do better then contact your state legislators using the Fund The Solution email form (created by Morehead State University Foundation) or contact Gov. Matt Bevin directly. You can also contact the members of the 2016 Interim Joint Committee on Education and the 2016 House Standing Committee on Appropriations and Revenue (here is a handy spreadsheet with all the Committee members email addresses) to urge those legislators to think about our future.