Vocational Education and the Irony of Decline in the Liberal Arts

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There’s nothing like overkill, I suppose.   Got a problem—don’t just fix it; exterminate it.  Fits the populist/progressive narrative. Only . . .

How come the Wall Street Journal touts as wave-of-the-future-like the plans of the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point to cope with a $4.5 million deficit by potentially axing its programs in political science, American studies, English, history, philosophy, and sociology?   “At the same time,” the Journal reports, “Officials plan to expand more career-oriented programs like chemical engineering, marketing, and computer information systems.”

The idea: go where the customers want to go—the marketplace model, with the fragrance of soap, coffee, and leather SUV seats.  We’re into job and career preparation here.   Which isn’t awful, given the need to steer into vocational training many students who don’t really need a classic college education.

And yet . . . and yet . . . We need some balance here:  respect for vocational education (“shopcraft as soulcraft,” as one author has put it) accompanied by continued emphasis on the liberal arts – badly taught as they are, in our age of political correctness.

A great irony of liberal arts decline is that the teaching of history and of literature and of political science too often emphasize the teacher’s pejorative view of Western culture and accomplishments.  You don’t need a course in How Capitalists Raped the West unless you just want further reinforcement of what you already think you know.   You don’t need a course In Maya Angelou (who is very much alive) so much as you need one on dead greats like Hawthorne and Whitman and Cooper and Faulkner.

Job training is great—but the liberal arts, rightly taught, prepare the student not so much for workplace proficiency as for skill in the business of living.

Liberal arts, wrongly taught, deserve the bad rap they so often get for distortions and plain old lies about the culture of which we’re a part.  The remedy isn’t to steer students away from the liberal arts.  The remedy, rather, is to renew, somehow, respect among the liberal arts faculty, and in the nation at large, for the ideas that have propelled the world—in particular the Western world—from the stone tablet to the iPad.  (Assuming the iPad represents true progress as distinguished from mere accomplishment!).

Not the least reason to recover our campuses from the enemies of free thought is to restore free thought on campus to the honorable estate it formerly enjoyed. Back when you wanted to know your country’s history; and you suspected Messrs. Whitman and Hawthorne might have interesting—yes, and useful—things to say about Life itself.  Yep ‘—those were the days.

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