Americans who started with Benjamin Franklin were sceptical of liberal arts higher education. Recently, however, the critics have been out in force.
Education is a key issue in America. Today’s key issue is whether to retool college so that students are “job-ready” and can be placed in a specific job. This new version of instrumentalism contradicts liberal education’s great tradition that sees learning as a means of social mobility and effective citizenship. This tradition dates back to the founding of the country. John Adams stated that “arbitrary government and all forms of oppression have diminished and disappeared where there has been a general awareness and sensibility among the people.”
Despite their commitment to education, there have been suspicions about what happened in colleges. Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters – I present why critics of higher education are scathing about its relevance and elitism. They often call for more practical, vocational instruction. Franklin mocked learning that prided itself in its independence from labour (in its uselessness). He also suggested that this was a disguise for snobbism, which is the ability to learn “to exit a drawing-room properly.” Current commentators question whether young people can learn anything useful during their “four-year party,” which sometimes ends with a diploma. From this perspective, education is a luxury that can be bought with a loan.
Franklin, however, proposed a compelling form of a broad education that was both useful and not narrowly instrumental. Thomas Jefferson believed that fostering a student’s ability to learn throughout their lives within a university structure was essential for science and commerce, and democracy. Both believed that a university should only train young people to do the jobs that older folks have already chosen for them, but neither believed that college should be academic.
However, the academy has been the subject of new criticisms over the years. These critics are no longer looking for “true liberal learning” but want an education that equips people to take an appropriate role in the economy. Economists who want to restrict access to education wonder if it is worth it for mail carriers to spend their time learning about the world and each other when they could have been saving money for a house. Sociologists question whether increasing access to college leads to unrealistic expectations of a workforce that is not expected to be able to use independent judgment and critical thinking. Then there is the cost of liberal education and its apparent disconnect from the real world. Columnists argue that it must be more relevant while politicians groan about making it more efficient. We are told that educational institutions can be “disintermediated” through “disruptive innovations”. This is similar to middlemen being cut out of a transaction in the market.
Many people today want to see a more vocational approach to teaching. According to them, we need to track students in the fields they are most interested in today’s economy. This is in direct contradiction to American liberal education tradition. American thinkers have stressed the benefits of broad and pragmatic learning, from the Revolutionary War to the current debates about college’s worth, giving individuals more freedom and a wider range of choices. This tradition of liberal education teaches you to learn and creates habits that will last a lifetime.
Today’s efforts to restrict higher education to a specific class of students or to confine the college curriculum to an instrumental format is a serious mistake. It ignores the deep current of humanistic learning. This is old-fashioned, elitist condescension mixed with a desire for equality.
Education has been tied closely to individual freedom and the ability to think for yourself and contribute to society through the use of one’s creativity. The pace of change is faster than ever, and it’s more important than ever to be able to make changes and find opportunities. We must support more access to a pragmatic, liberal education if we are to fight inequality and increase the vitality and economic growth of our country.