Friday 3 June 2011

All college and university degrees should be vocational


When universities and colleges worked properly, or at least much better than they do now (which is 'hardly at all') - then they were vocational institutions.

Medieval universities taught that which was necessary for an individual to become a member of the intellectual ruling class (logic, grammar, rhetoric, mathematics) - and that was the vocational purpose of becoming a 'Master of Arts' (Magister Artium).

The Doctoral degrees were also vocational - both in a specific sense of educating for practice in Divinity, Law and Medicine - but also in the general sense of being a license to teach at Universities.


Post-medieval secular colleges retained the vocational focus: the aim early on was to teach what was necessary to become an administrator in that particular state - then later the vocational focus shifted to include that of being a generic 'teacher' of advanced studies (which at that time was mostly teaching in 'grammar schools').

When school teaching was essentially focused on the classics or mathematics, they formed the focus of university degrees - vocational again. To these were later added new vocational professions such as engineering, architecture, dentistry; and specialist teaching subjects, such as the sciences or specific arts.

Even as recently as forty years ago, most English degrees were implicitly vocational: the subject matter of degrees focused on either training for a specific profession, or for a specific type of advanced school teacher. The bulk of graduates were assumed to become high school teachers of the subject they studied at college.


(The apparent exception of historical US liberal arts colleges can be understood on the basis that they actually functioned as grammar schools not universities: they provided basic general education for elite administrators.)


Since the vocational link was broken, universities and colleges have been adrift without land in sight.

They claim to 'educate', but what is 'education' in practice?

By assuming that 'education' is valuable in and of itself, the concept has been emptied of substance.

Education is now open-endedly defined as 'whatever universities teach'.


Lacking any understandable vocational rationale for degrees, higher education makes implausible claims about its generic benefits.

However, the claimed effects of higher 'education' as such turn-out to be merely a combination of maturation and selection. Graduates (as a class) are three or four years older, and possess intellectual abilities according to the degree of selectivity of a particular institution.

Until age and selectivity are controlled, quantitative claims for the generic benefits of generic higher education are dishonest or ignorant (usually both).


(By contrast the specific benefits of a specific program of study are much more comprehensible - when present. The professional programs potentially retain this core rationale - but this activity constitutes a small segment of higher education - and indeed the professional courses have been corrupted by a bogus goal of 'generic education'. The fake rationale of non-vocational higher education has thus contaminated the obvious functionality of vocational higher education!)


Let's be clear: There are no generic benefits from spending x years studying something called a degree in some-subject-or-another, at something called a university.

Really - let's be sensible - how could there be?

Advanced formal education just is vocational - not in the sense of being a training for a specific job, but in the sense that it can cohere and potentially be valuable only when conceptualized as a preparation.



The Monk said...

Have you read Nock's excellent The Theory of Education in the United States? It was an eye-opener. I myself have been educated where education was a complete travesty - I saw only one other student who had any interest in the subject whatsoever. Everyone else thought of learning as a horrific torture (which it probably was, to them and others of their kind), to be somehow borne until the degree was over, and the only thing they wanted was a cushy and stable job which didn't involve any effort or thinking. I found the culture hostile to learning, and to those who liked it. So I wouldn't be so dismissive of education as an end in itself.

I have to clarify, however, that when I speak of education as an end in itself, I don't mean this to be an empty statement. When you say that making it an end made it lose meaning, I presume you're defining education as 'whatever happens in a university to a student for N years'. By this definition, yes it is of course and trivially pointless, because it doesn't say anything at all. But Nock's definition has meaning: a classical education has the goal of inculcating great, almost inhuman maturity, and the perspective of one with immense longevity, by studying the works of the human mind and what it has done for the last 3000 years (and more). (Let me make an addition: a technical education consists of complete and utter mastery of a body of technical material, such that most of the operations required are understood thoroughly enough to allow for their instinctive use as necessary, there is enough practice to make common tasks reflexive, enough knowledge and breadth of exposure to allow the student to transition seamlessly to the study of any related subject, and (crucially) the ability to discern the limits of man and that field.)

These definitions are not meaningless, even though they are not aimed at a profession or vocation. The maturity inculcated by a classical education is not preparation for anything more. The mastery acquired through a technical education is also not preparation for anything further, it is done because gaining mastery over something is itself a source of delight. (Mathematics is an excellent example of the latter.)

dearieme said...

Perhaps it's no coincidence that even in the sciences, it's the departments where teaching is aimed at a profession - Medicine, Vet, Engineering, say - that the undergraduates are best looked after. (Or so my observation suggests.)

Among the artsy-socially subjects, would that be true of, say, Architecture and Law versus, say, English and Economics?

I may say that an ancient chum of mine started university lecturing in the early 50s and, even then, thought he saw demoralised teachers in the Arts Faculty, wondering what they were for.

dearieme said...

Though it is, alas, true that "All medical research is rubbish" is a better approximation to the truth than almost all medical research.

Alex said...

I have the deeply unprogressive view that graduates who study for a degree that does not furnish a professional qualification (Law, Medicine, etc.) should not be subsidized by the state, but should pay upfront for their education.

I do not believe the self-serving claims about 'transferable skills' which are supposed to be mastered, let's say, in the study of English, or History, or in the Balliol favourite, PP and E.

I think Newman's idea of a university as a place in which a gentleman (or lady nowadays) acquires a 'trained mind' rather than an institution which exists to disseminate useful knowledge and transmit the culture, is also misguided.

TrueNorth said...

A large part of the problem is that the mantra "education is the key to success" has flooded the universities and colleges with students who are not capable of earning a meaningful degree. So, a plethora of new subjects such as "women's studies", "black studies" etc. is invented to give them the illusion of having obtained an education (and enriching the universities at the same time).

The politicians are happy, since they can point to an ever-higher percentage of the population with a post-secondary degree.

The real victims are the suckers who wasted years of their lives and countless thousands of dollars earning a useless piece of paper. Their time would have been much better spent learning how to be a plumber or electrician or some other skilled trade.

Elizabeth Smith said...

I'm going to follow your advice Bruce Charlton (I'm 18 and almost completing the 12th grade). I've decided to instead of spending my life and resources all day at a university that I'm going to do a minor in Philosophy while doing 1 year LVN (Licensed Vocational Nurse) followed by 2 year course of LVN-to-BSN while working full-time (Licensed Vocational Nurse to Bachelor's Science in Nursing).

I have promised myself that I will never work full-time and only part-time or a housewife like my mother when I find a Christian man of the same racial descent as me (hopefully there is also the vocational aspect to a speciality in anesthesia so I can acquire it before I become a wife and a mother in the Christian church).

I liked your posts about the current state of medicine by the way Bruce Charlton. Quite riveting.