"The idea that a college degree is a prerequisite to any professional career is a quite new one, only about a hundred years old. The idea that college is needed for everyone in order to be productive members of society is only a few decades old....I'm not suggesting that people shouldn't go to college. My contention, rather, is that universities and their career-seeking students have a deep-seated contradiction to resolve: On the one hand, our society now views a college education as a gateway to employment; on the other hand, academia has tended to maintain a bias against the vocational."
While not a central thesis of his energetic and sweeping critique of education, this quote, taken from this year's common faculty reading, "The One World Schoolhouse: Education Reimagined," by Salman Kahn, describes one of the current identity struggles in higher education, both for practitioners and consumers - and all constituents in between. Do we exist to impart wisdom or teach skills, and can we do both? Tracing the roots of this dichotomy to early notions of the apprenticeship system of teaching skills for vocation versus the classic Greek academy model of seeking truth through wisdom, dialogue and debate, Kahn goes on:
"Why should it prove so difficult to design a school that would teach both skills and wisdom, or even better, wisdom through skills? That's the challenge and the opportunity we face today."
Now, arguably we often do both quite well in higher education and here at SCC. But the heart of this dichotomy is present in our current thinking and language. We refer here at SCC and elsewhere to career/technical programs, for instance, as separate and distinct from our more academic programs, the latter often referred to as our transfer programs. One inference that could be drawn from this language is this - that programs leading directly to careers are not necessarily preparing students for continued enlightenment on their intellectual journey toward higher learning, and conversely that programs of this latter sort are aimed chiefly at preparing students for higher learning - learning beyond SCC - and are not intended at this level to impart skills of value in any immediate sense to one's career.
Clearly this is an oversimplification of this dynamic, made here chiefly as a means to surface the falsely dichotomous nature of this discussion. Surely students who pass through our nursing and pre-engineering programs, for instance, are learning higher order thinking and problem-solving skills. And those who study psychology or anthropology are gaining valuable career skills. And in either case the value of college education can be measured both in personal and intellectual growth and in the enhancement of one's career and earnings trajectory.
While Salman Kahn's homogeneous characterization of our "career-seeking students" can be argued and his assertion of society's singular view of college as a "gateway to employment" questioned, he at least invites us to think about our purposes and how well - or not - we have integrated these in our thinking, language, and in practice. He invites us to consider much more than this, of course, in his critique. I look forward to the faculty discussion of this common summer reading later this week and into the Fall semester.
Happy Holiday Season 2013
2 weeks ago