Career Training vs. University Education


New article in New York Times deals with issues of the current changes in our educational system, but ultimately fails to address the most essential question: are we in the business of career training or are we trying to provide comprehensive education?

Students don’t want to major in philosophy or classics, therefore those majors must be eliminated. Students want to study business, therefore more business courses must be introduced. This is the basic logic. Consumers are investing money, they want definite returns, therefore university must be run like a business and administrators are its corporate managers. Students don’t like math, but they need it for business courses, therefore we are keeping math requirements. But what if students didn’t want to take Calculus or English or History or Sociology or Psychology? Why not just send them to a career training college where they will learn only about their speciality? Well, that’s not cool – we must keep up the pretense of liberal education and so on.

“We want to teach them how to make an argument, how to defend an argument, to make a choice.” These are the skills that liberal arts colleges in particular have prided themselves on teaching. But these colleges also say they have the hardest time explaining the link between what they teach and the kind of job and salary a student can expect on the other end.

Do you know why? Because there isn’t any link. In fact, if you want to be good at business, you might do better if you became an apprentice and didn’t go to college at all.

Strangely enough, it seems that employers don’t want students that are too specialized, so where does this model come from? Students themselves? Their parents? Culture? It’s clear that employers wouldn’t want a narrow specialist because s/he would be more difficult to replace – the more non-specialist (“creative”) the worker is, the easier it is to replace her/him with another equally non-specialist worker. Is there a hidden struggle here between the future workforce that wants to be more specialized (and therefore more in control of their own employment) and the future employers who want nothing of the sort?

My favorite part of the article, you ask? – There are no professors interviewed (unless I missed it), none, zilch. University = Administrators (provosts, presidents, deans etc etc), despite the fact that in this new corporate university administrators are actually the people who are most likely to move on to a different school in the next 3-5 years, while the faculty stays there and has to deal with, for example, cancelled majors or reorganized curriculum.

10 thoughts on “Career Training vs. University Education

  1. Some employers might want to hire employees who know how to write a cogent account of something, how to assess and compare the validity of the information they are being told, or the veracity of their sources. Not the New York Times.

  2. “It’s clear that employers wouldn’t want a narrow specialist because s/he would be more difficult to replace – the more non-specialist (“creative”) the worker is, the easier it is to replace her/him with another equally non-specialist worker.”

    “Creative”: ha. That’s the thing about the creative class: they really don’t know how to do very much, but they can revel in their creativity. And most of the entry-level positions in the “creative” industries these days aren’t even paying. You have to intern for six months to a year at some firm before you can get a so-called entry-level position at another, and for that time you’re either serving coffee or living off your parents. Oh well, color me bitter.

    “Is there a hidden struggle here between the future workforce that wants to be more specialized (and therefore more in control of their own employment) and the future employers who want nothing of the sort?”

    I don’t know. Over specialization is one of those bugbears that haunt career seekers. You specialize in an industry that disappears, and you become redundant in a painful way. “Flexibility” seems to be the spirit that animates broader notions of how to plan for future gigs these days: “No one does what they study,” a consultant acquaintance–who regularly informs firms which of their employees are superfluous–told me. So, while possessing a specialized skill set might be a source of power for employees, it’s also something that they’re told, incessantly, not to pursue. Perhaps that is disinformation in the hidden struggle.

  3. M.E.: “My favorite part of the article, you ask? – There are no professors interviewed (unless I missed it), none, zilch.”

    Kvond: One answer of why would be that professors are so highly specialized a work force, those that have been narrowly trained to be (despite what they think about the importance of their work, and the freedoms they possess) basically assemble-line Gradgrinds, churning out Instutional laborers, paper-writers and the requisite ideology, what they have to say would be the LEAST insightful to the problem. They are speaking WITHIN the problem, not outside of it. The question would be, Why should we make more of you?

  4. JCD, I think of course being too specialized would put you in a more vulnerable position in terms of selling your labor power, but why then do all these student and their parents want only to study “their area” (like business) while the employers are not in fact looking for that sort of specialization? Where does that desire to specialize come from? It seems that students as consumers understand the logic – be difficult to replace (once you get a job) – without really thinking about it.

    Does the university produce non-specialists in order to provide the market place with a flexible (and replaceable) worker? Does this whole talk of “well-rounded citizens” just an ideological cover for capitalist intention to produce a suitable work-force? That was my thought, I think, and I’m not sure what to say about it at this point.

    • M.E.: “Does the university produce non-specialists in order to provide the market place with a flexible (and replaceable) worker? Does this whole talk of “well-rounded citizens” just an ideological cover for capitalist intention to produce a suitable work-force?”

      Kvond: Who was it of Athens that in a famous speech to the Assemble compared the dextrousness of the Athenian citizen to the rigid, peg-hole citizen of Sparta? Isn’t the proper, or more interesting way of stating the above not a question of “ideological cover” designed to control a workforce, but rather the whole cloth of a society making itself flexible enough to endure cultural, economic and political change. Having a “suitable” work force, is part of that, but surely that is not what is reduced to.

      And of course there are other metaphysical/human questions about what makes a worker-person happier.

  5. Kevin, I don’t think professors are that narrow – yes, there are of course some who could care less about the general direction of their universities, but most are quite keen on participating in discussions and so on. Administrators are as much on the “inside” as professors, it’s just that they are now identified with the university because that’s how they want to be seen: there are “shareholders” (student/parents) and “management” (administration) and then there are professors who “produce” – my point was, in terms of mobility, it’s more likely that a person interviewed in the article will be gone in the next couple of years to “transform” another school while faculty will be stuck with their policies, rules, “mission statements” and all that other bullshit…

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