Not all that long ago, college followed a predictable pattern: two years of general education requirements followed by two years of courses in the chosen major. No longer. As this review of course requirements shows, even some of the liberal arts colleges have minimized requirements outside the major.

Of all the potential causes for the disappearance of general ed, two seem lost likely to me (though this is pure conjecture). One is the commodification of higher education, in which climbing walls, dorm-suites with pools, and emphasis on career-focused courses are necessary to compete for students. The is that many faculty members are unaware that a shared body of knowledge is necessary for active citizenship (or effective communication or even on-the-job critical thinking).

Regardless, creating general education requirements is so rare these days that it’s newsworthy. Students seem oblivious to the notion that education could have more than one purpose. As a freshman at Boston University said,

“I feel like, if you know you want to be an engineer, you shouldn’t have to spend your time doing things that aren’t really going to apply to you.”

Shutterstock photo Engineer
Engineering may make for a good career, but there’s far more to a good life (image courtesy of Shutterstock).

Of course, this isn’t the students’ fault. The real problem is with the adults who have abdicated their duty to define and protect the very notion of an education. Marc Tucker tackled this recently, asking “What Does It Mean to Be an Educated Person Today?”:

One of the most influential—and, I think it is fair to say, thoughtful—statements on what it might mean to be an educated person … was the Harvard University report on General Education in a Free Society, released in 1945.  It addressed both the schools and higher education, offering the view that social and moral development is no less important than academic learning. It argued that everyone is capable of serious intellectual accomplishment at some level and that the accumulation of expert knowledge in one arena is positively dangerous if it is not grounded in a broad, deep and humane understanding of the human condition and a well-grounded moral sensibility, that a democracy likes ours cannot survive if serious learning is monopolized only by our elites. For all these reasons, it said, the modern university had an obligation to require all students to take at least a third of their course selections from courses specially designed by teams of top faculty not to advance students in their march toward specialization but rather to involve them in the study of complex issues, systems, big ideas from the full realm of human experience … to help them lead the good life as the Greeks would have understood that phrase—to be decent, capable, concerned, involved contributors and thoughtful citizens.  They proposed, in other words, what amounted to a common curriculum, with some choice, that would be designed to enable all students to achieve goals that the Harvard task force had thought long and hard about.

Just a few years ago, another Harvard president called a subsequent Harvard task force together to update General Education in a Free Society. It failed to come to a consensus on a common, coherent undergraduate curriculum. Little wonder. In the intervening years, the university had become a vast holding company of faculty entrepreneurs and specialists and the student body had come to build and hone the specialist skills and faculty and student connections that would give them an edge in a highly competitive job market.

With every passing year, our college and university programs are more vocational in nature…. We need to turn off the autopilot. We need to examine the technological, political, social and moral challenges we face and ask ourselves how and for what purpose we should be educating—not training—our young adults.  If it were ever the case that the unexamined life is not worth living, it is the case now.

While there are still some institutions teaching the liberal arts, I don’t see most colleges escaping from a narrow concept of career preparation. But since most students don’t complete college, perhaps our focus should be on K–12. With Core Knowledge and other rigorous curricula, shouldn’t our goal be for high school graduates to be well educated, ready to lead good lives?

9 comments on “The Triumph of Training over Education”

  1. 1
    Janice Klinger on October 14, 2015

    Sadly, you are absolutely right. I’ve been lamenting on this issue for at least 15 years. But perhaps now that we are talking about this issue, the pendulum will start swinging the other way. This us the first time I heard anyone say that universities have become vocational entities. There’s still hope.

  2. 2
    Ewaldoh on October 14, 2015

    Amen!
    I noticed the trend twenty-five years ago when my students were applying to a department/school rather to a college/university.
    Where I didn’t declare (or even know) my major until the end of my sophomore year, kids are now making that choice four years earlier.
    Granted that I never went deeper than X-101 in several departments, that introduction allows me to engage in discussions today where I might only be asking questions.
    Could this have any effect on a voting public?

  3. 3
    Susan Toth on October 14, 2015

    Someone, I think Bernie Sanders, recently pointed out that a college degree today is equivalent to a high school education of fifty years ago. Why is this not a scandal?

  4. 4
    Ewaldoh on October 14, 2015

    Susan, I would need to know why you might consider it a scandal?

    I’ve heard the comment many times and I think it refers to an employment baseline. In 1932, my dad was given a desk job in a Cleveland bank based on his high school diploma … they were rare. That wouldn’t happen today due to the number of college degrees.

    If there is a scandal, it would be the number of high school grads going to college that should be entering a trade. Then we wouldn’t see so many college grads (or kids with 2-3 years of college & $$$ in loans) working as an asst. manager at McDonalds or lawn care.

  5. 5
    Susan Toth on October 14, 2015

    It is a scandal because this situation implies that kids today are dumber than kids were fifty years ago, if they cannot do in high school what kids did then. It is a scandal if the K-12 curriculum has been watered down. It is a scandal if the employment baseline is lower. It is a scandal if there are numbers of high school grads unprepared for college.

  6. 6
    Ponderosa on October 14, 2015

    If college is becoming vocational, K-12 needs to be the new home of the liberal arts. I received my BA from St. John’s College, which has the most un-vocational curriculum imaginable –a four year Great Books program. I loved it and am grateful for it (though it’s taken me twenty years to fully appreciate its value). When I was there, however, I often wished I had done the Program in high school –so that I could be spending my college years doing more advanced or career-oriented study. A solid liberal arts education is the best launching pad for being a broadly conscious, happy, mentally-unshackled and humane human. The typical American K-12 curriculum is not –so much time is wasted on fruitless activities and watered-down coursework –on trying to exercise mental muscles rather than engage with important content. I don’t see why we cannot drastically improve what K-12 schools do so as to provide a solid liberal arts education there –12 years is a long time! A lot can be accomplished there if we use the time wisely. Sadly Common Core is leading us away from such wise use of time. SBAC/PARCC results are being analyzed as we speak and principals are ordering stultifying and fruitless practice on “building inference making skills” and “learning to support claims with evidence” –this is the antithesis of liberal arts. It’s a debased and mutant form of education.

  7. 7
    Dan on October 15, 2015

    I disagree with your assessment. What universities are now doing (something they should have done 30 years ago) is getting rid of the extra noise. Universities are paid by the attending students to provide them with knowledge and skills in the field which they are going to major in.

    Rarely do I hear of anyone complimenting the university or college, which they haveattended, for providing them the necessary skills to navigate in the political, psychological or sociological aspect of the education field.

    The extras are just that, extras without true value to one’s field.

  8. 8
    Susan Toth on October 15, 2015

    “The extras are just that, extras without true value to one’s field.” Dan’s comment illustrates the conflict we have about education. On the one hand, this belief that only what “interests” students, centered on the eventual professional field, is of value in education.

    Ponderosa better defines education: “A solid liberal arts education is the best launching pad for being a broadly conscious, happy, mentally-unshackled and humane human.”

    Lisa points out: “Students seem oblivious to the notion that education could have more than one purpose.” It is not only students who are oblivious to that reality. As a society we seem unable to come to grips with the issue. Not everyone, of course. There exist schools and teachers who are not oblivious and whose work shows their conviction.

    Nevertheless, too many children are still left out.

  9. 9
    Andrew Krul on July 7, 2016

    About 14 percent of first-year students drop out, according to the Persistence in Post-Secondary Education in Canada report, which analyzed data from Statistics Canada’s Youth in Transition Survey.

    The overall post-secondary dropout rate was about 16 percent, suggesting that those who are going to drop out, do so early on.

    As with all statistics, we need to be cautious in ascribing one or two simplistic reasons for this dangerous trend. Student debt, lack of readiness for secondary education contrasted to high school expectations for individual learning responsibility and other factors certainly come into play. Here is the conundrum: As a high school English teacher, I wanted my students to value a liberal arts education- to appreciate the motifs of Hamlet or appreciate English Romantic poetry. As a guidance counselor who tracked many of these students who attended and then dropped out of university, I heard an alarming trend. These students saw learning as separated from their practical lives. With mounting tuition costs and dubious job prospects after graduation, they wanted to be trained for a job-that’s all. Whether we like it or not, young people have changed. They tend to be pragmatic-tell me what I need to do to get “there” and I will do it. Doesn’t this filter down to high schools? Think of the many disengaged students who ultimately drop out. Again, this is not merely because of a disconnected curriculum, but I have encountered many students over the years who dropped out because of these reasons. We may not abandon the premise of liberal arts education, but there needs to be some close analysis of how what we teach connects to our students’ lives.

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