Get Prepared but Don’t Just Get Narrowed!

Happy Labor Day and first day of classes! The following is cross-posted from The Daily Beast.

There is a tradition in this country stretching back to Thomas Jefferson of lofty ideals for our colleges and universities. Liberal learning is said to prepare one for autonomy and for citizenship. As Ralph Waldo Emerson emphasized, it also led one away from the crowd; it helped one escape mere imitation and opened access to authenticity. Finally, education offered the opportunity to discover work that would be meaningful — to find one’s “passion.”

But, as I describe in Beyond The University: Why Liberal Education Matters, there is another tradition stretching back just as far questioning the “real world” relevance of these lofty ideals. Is it right to speak of “finding meaningful work” when available work might necessarily involve drudgery and worse? Is it right to emphasize citizenship and finding one’s passion to students who first and foremost are desperate to find a job? Such questions, so much on our minds today, were especially urgent for freed African slaves and their descendants at the beginning of the 20th century.

In 1903, Booker T. Washington voiced the following complaint about education for African-Americans:

There were young men educated in foreign tongues, but few in carpentry or in mechanical or architectural drawing. Many were trained in Latin, but few as engineers and blacksmiths. Too many were taken from the farm and educated, but educated in everything but farming.

Washington was a passionate advocate for an intensely practical education for ex-slaves and their descendants. He was born a slave on a small farm in Virginia and after the Civil War found work in the mines of West Virginia. After his education at the Hampton Institute, Washington was convinced that only by achieving economic success would blacks ever be recognized by white Americans as full members of society. Education should make people self-reliant, in Emerson’s ideal sense, but for Washington self-reliance was first and foremost the ability to earn a decent living.

Washington’s fame was as a teacher, institution builder (especially at the Tuskegee Institute), fundraiser, and spokesperson for the view that American blacks needed an intensely practical, vocational education. He appealed to ex-slaves and their descendants who were looking for a path out of poverty, and he appealed to whites who appreciated his decision not to demand much in the way of political or cultural change. Washington was an “accomodationist,” willing to work within the structures for legal subordination of blacks in the South as long as he was able to promote black economic advancement. His message resonated with wealthy industrialists, high-toned educators, and even presidents. He was the most famous black man in America at the end of the 19th century.

Born shortly after the Civil War, W.E.B. Du Bois came into his own just as Washington was reaching the height of his fame. Du Bois was a prodigious intellectual with a slew of degrees–bachelors diplomas from Fisk and Harvard, eventually a Ph.D. also from Harvard (he was the first black person to receive one there) with continued graduate work in Berlin. He was a classics professor and a historian who wrote sociology (highly praised by Max Weber), poetry, plays, and fiction–to name just some of the genres in which he worked.

Washington was impressed by the American desire for material success and wanted to build progress for African Americans based on their ability to be successful in the economy. Du Bois, on the other hand, emphasized political and civic equality, along with the Jeffersonian notion of “education of youth according to ability.” Education was at the core of the differences between the two. “The pushing of mere abstract knowledge into the head means little,” Washington had written. “We want more than the mere performance of mental gymnastics. Our knowledge must be harnessed to the things of real life.” Du Bois agreed, but he wanted to broaden what might count as “the things of real life” so that the pursuit of happiness wouldn’t be reduced to the pursuit of dollars:

The function of the university is not simply to teach bread-winning, or to furnish teachers for the public schools, or to be a center of polite society; it is, above all, to be the organ of that fine adjustment between real life and the growing knowledge of life, an adjustment which forms the secret of civilization.

Du Bois was acutely aware that the “fine adjustment” between life and knowledge was especially problematic in a society of oppressive racial inequality, a society that had denied many blacks the most rudimentary education in the years after emancipation. He was committed to the ideal that education was a path to freedom, but he also acknowledged the fact that different people need different kinds of educational opportunity:

How foolish to ask what is the best education for one or seven or sixty million souls! Shall we teach them trades, or train them in liberal arts? Neither and both: teach the workers to work and the thinkers to think; make carpenters of carpenters, and philosophers of philosophers, and fops of fools. Nor can we pause here. We are training not isolated men but a living group of men–nay, a group within a group. And the final product of our training must be neither a psychologist nor a brickmason, but a man.

Educational institutions should aim to stimulate hunger for knowledge — not just contain it or channel it into a narrow path destined for a job market that will quickly change. Education should not teach the person to conform to a function, a repetition of slavery, but should provide people with a wider horizon of choices.

Du Bois repeatedly defended liberal education against those who saw it as impractical. In an address at the Hampton Institute in the beginning of the century, he lamented that “there is an insistence on the practical in a manner and tone that would make Socrates an idiot and Jesus Christ a crank.” At one of the centers of industrial learning for blacks, Du Bois argued that its doctrine of education was fundamentally false because it was so seriously limited. What mattered in education was not so much the curriculum on campus but an understanding that the aim of education went far beyond the university. And here is where Du Bois issued his challenge:

The aim of the higher training of the college is the development of power, the training of a self whose balanced assertion will mean as much as possible for the great ends of civilization. The aim of technical training on the other hand is to enable the student to master the present methods of earning a living in some particular way . . . We must give our youth a training designed above all to make them men of power, of thought, of trained and cultivated taste; men who know whither civilization is tending and what it means.

The differences between Washington and Du Bois, and the tensions between the lofty and practical ideals for higher education, are instructive for us today. Sure, we must pay attention to what our graduates will do with their education, and we must give them the skills to translate what they learn in classrooms to their lives after graduation. But we shouldn’t reduce our understanding of “their lives after graduation” to their very first job — which should be the worst job they’ll ever have. We must recommit ourselves instead to ensuring that a broad, liberal education is also pragmatic — in Washington’s words, “harnessed to the things in real life,” to productive skills valued beyond the university. By doing so, we will also achieve what Du Bois championed: practical idealism based in lifelong learning.

Declaring Our Independence Through Education

Just tell me one thing. Will my daughter have a job and not be moving back home after she graduates from your university?

That’s what a dad asked me at a Wesleyan University information session caught on film for the recent higher-education documentary Ivory Tower. Traditionally, a college degree has been a marker of independence as graduates embrace the opportunity to stand upon their own two feet, but today those receiving degrees are often riddled with debt and with doubt. When these graduates wind up back in their parents’ basements, when they feel clueless about how to enter a challenging job market, when they have no idea how to convert their classroom experience into action in the world, they exemplify the failure of the American promise that education makes you free and self-reliant. We in higher education must renew that promise by demonstrating how pragmatic liberal education provides students with greater independence and capacity for productive work well beyond graduation day.

As I show in Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters, this promise has been part of our history since the earliest days of the republic. It would be hard to find an American figure more devoted to a broad, liberal education than the author of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson. He argued that the health of a republic depends on the education of its citizens because only an educated citizenry can push back against the tyranny of the powerful. His “frenemy” John Adams maintained that citizens of all walks of life deserve to learn the principles of freedom:

“The whole people must take upon themselves the education of the whole people, and must be willing to bear the expenses of it.”

Although our nation’s commitment to education runs deep, we’ve also long been suspicious about what those kids were really learning. Ben Franklin was pretty sure that some of the guys up at Harvard were largely being schooled in cultivated condescension, and populist criticism of higher ed today rightly condemns the amenities arm race through which supposedly rigorous schools pander to the worst instincts for luxury, partying and callousness. Colleges may be selling the full spa experience to wanna-be investment bankers, but families are often borrowing heavily only to discover that the college diploma is no sure ticket to economic self-sufficiency.

Another of America’s great prophets of independence is Ralph Waldo Emerson, who gave his celebrated lectures “The American Scholar” and “Self-Reliance” in the mid-1800s. Emerson saw education as a process through which one learned to absorb more of the world while also acquiring abilities to respond productively to it. Higher education should ignite students’ spirit and intelligence: Colleges only serve us well, he wrote:

“When they aim not to drill, but to create; when they gather from far every ray of various genius to their hospitable halls, and, by the concentrated fires, set the hearts of their youth on flame.”

Setting hearts aflame for Emerson didn’t just mean creating a sense of inner transformation – he was committed to the idea that a liberal education made you more effective beyond the university. Becoming more effective in the work you have chosen was at the core of what he called self-reliance. The opposite of self-reliance for Emerson was conformity, a pervasive force in his time as it is in ours.

Hoping to capitalize on the anxieties of parents and students, many today are calling for a more vocational style of learning. Unfortunately, demands for a more efficient, practical college education are likely to lead to the opposite: men and women who are trained for yesterday’s problems and yesterday’s jobs, men and women who have not reflected on their own lives in ways that allow them to tap into their capacities for innovation and for making meaning out of their experience. Under the guise of “practicality” we are really hearing calls for conformity, calls for conventional thinking that will impoverish our economic, cultural and personal lives.

Some claim that in today’s economy we should track students earlier into specific fields for which they seem to have aptitude. This runs counter to the American tradition of liberal education. From the Revolutionary War through current debates about the worth of college, American thinkers have emphasized the ways that broad, pragmatic learning addresses the whole person, allowing individuals greater freedom and an expanded range of choices. Liberal education in this tradition means developing independence of mind and habits of critical and creative thinking that last a lifetime.

On this July 4 we should dedicate ourselves to recovering the American promise that education should increase our independence. Since the founding of this country, education has been closely tied to self-reliance, to declaring one’s independence through one’s ability to think for oneself and creatively contribute to society. In a quickly shifting economic landscape, it is understandable that some parents and pundits are calling for streamlined learning to train people quickly. But gearing education only to meeting current economic conditions is a ticket to conformity — and also to economic and cultural mediocrity. We need intellectual cross training of the whole person — not nano-degrees in commercial codes and tactics (no matter how digital) sure soon to become obsolete.

The ability to shape change and seek opportunity has never been more valuable than it is today. If we want to push back against inequality and enhance the vitality of our culture and economy, if we truly want to declare our independence, we need to support greater access to pragmatic liberal education.

 

cross-posted with HuffingtonPost