What Do I Tell My Students?

As an adviser to adults in English-language and GED programs, Shawn Fisher wrestles every day, on the ground, with the vocational vs. liberal education divide.

November 1, 2013

“Now bear with me, Gentlemen, if what I am about to say has at first sight a fanciful appearance.”
--John Henry Cardinal Newman, from “The Idea of a University”

Imagine your job is to help students get into college, and one of the students you’re advising says to you, “It has always been my dream to study philosophy at Harvard.”

Let’s say that this student is graduating from a private prep school and you know that money will not be a major worry for her either during or after the college years. She has a deep hunger for knowledge, connections who can help her figure out a career path after graduation, and a family safety net that will catch her if she slips. How would you respond?

Now let’s say that, instead of graduating from an elite high school, this student is graduating from a local ESOL program, where she has been a student in night classes for the past three years, working her way up from near illiteracy to a decent command of spoken and written English. Let’s say that she came to the U.S. alone as a refugee from a war-torn part of the world, and she worked with an employment counselor upon arrival to land a job in the fast-food industry before her tiny assistance allowance from the government ran out.

Let’s say her counselor also helped her to find a room in a small apartment in a cheap part of town that she shares with two women she’d never met before she moved in. Let’s say she works nearly full-time on an irregular schedule and sends money back to family members in her home country, hoping that her husband and young child will soon be able to join her in the U.S. She, too, has a deep hunger for knowledge.

How do you respond now?

Or let’s say that your prep-school student comes to you and says she wants to enroll in a patient care technician certificate program at a nearby community college. What do you say? How about if your ESOL student says the same thing?

If studying philosophy at Harvard seems like an extreme example, what if we changed it to studying international relations at a state university? Or what if both students wanted to start out studying history at a community college, with dreams of law school down the line? Would you encourage one and not the other? How different should advising be for different populations of students?

This is the question I struggle with every day, the dilemma that makes my head ache with an ethical clench. The idealist in me wants so badly to say that the students I advise – adult students in ESOL classes and alternative high school programs – deserve to be taken seriously when they express the same dreams and desires as those in more privileged positions, that they should be challenged to consider educational programs that may not, on the surface, seem to be appropriate for their life circumstances.

After all, I got into the education game because I believe it to be a great equalizer – it opens up opportunities of all kinds, and everyone gets a place at the table where the ideas that shape the world are being discussed, debated, and refined. If we start selecting who gets to sit at that table, however well-intentioned we may be in doing so, what are we really doing? And what are the consequences?

I understand why, within the adult basic education world in which I operate, advisers, administrators, instructors, our national and state governments, even the students themselves tend to consider only those educational pathways that offer near-immediate payoffs: job-training programs; short certificate programs at public colleges; anything that bears the label “work force development,” the pragmatic antithesis to a highfalutin “liberal arts education.”

Older students, students with children, students with jobs, students with bills, commuting students, students who have already spent years sacrificing to acquire language skills and high school credentials … none of them have time or money to waste, so they need to know that an investment of their time and money will yield a very concrete, very quick return.

They need to earn above the minimum wage, and since college is really the only way to reach that end these days, we help them get to college. Or at least, we help them get to those colleges and those programs that serve specific vocational goals. Get ‘em in, get ‘em out, get ‘em to work. We score one for the completion agenda, and we’ve done our jobs.

But have we? Or are we diminishing the students we claim to care about as well as the concept of higher education itself?

This is a source of internal tension for me, because I’m sold on John Henry Newman’s idea of the university as the place where the primacy of a liberal education is upheld, over and above technical training.

He does not deny, and I do not deny, that a college education can (and probably even should) result in a good career. What he does deny, and what I also deny, is that this should be the only and principal result, for, as he argues, “education is a higher word; it implies an action upon our mental nature, and the formation of a character; it is something individual and permanent” which is truly useful, not “in any low, mechanical, mercantile sense, but as diffusing good, or as a blessing, or a gift, or power, or a treasure, first to the owner, then through him to the world.”

Education, if done right, confers a treasure – first to the student, then to the world.

Newman likens this educational treasure to physical health. No one would dispute that maintaining physical health is a good unto itself, which may even be worth a sacrifice of time and money. We can easily identify the innumerable things we are able to do when our bodies are healthy, even though we cannot pinpoint an exact, specific use of good health. So, too, with a liberal education. Its practicality lies in the infinite unpredictable ways in which it will enhance all of our endeavors. “A cultivated intellect, because it is a good in itself,” writes Newman, “brings with it a power and a grace to every work and occupation which it undertakes, and enables us to be more useful, and to a greater number.”

I’m hooked on this kind of higher, deeper, broader understanding of education that cannot, cannot be an elitist model, for it’s this type of education that yields a stronger, more useful citizenry. Engineers, paralegals, lab technicians, phlebotomists, all need to be considering and questioning their roles, as professionals and human beings. We all need to understand systems and question authorities. We all need to critically consider our world. The opportunity to do just that is what a college education should provide. To learn, to listen, to reason, to speak, to contribute and be heard. To flatten social hierarchies, to gain and to give social capital. To be equal. To develop marketable job skills in tandem – sure, absolutely – but not at the expense of the greater good to be gained.

I do not want to decide, and I do not want superficial circumstances to decide, which students can pursue a quality liberal arts education and which ones are shunted toward job-training programs. If the immigrants, high school dropouts, refugees, older students, single parents, ex-offenders, and full-time workers who come to see me wish to enroll in college, I want to encourage them to consider programs that go beyond pure skills instruction. They need to be at the table where the big, meta concepts are laid out for ingestion, or we risk filling these positions of power exclusively with people of privilege. We risk losing nontraditional students’ input and perspective within entire branches of knowledge, within countless spheres of influence.

I will admit, though, that I have a hard time advising adult students from this viewpoint when what they need in the short term is preparation for a job that pays the grocery bill. It is awfully hard to say, “Study philosophy!” when they’re desperate for relief from the burden of poverty.

Knowledge may be power, but a paycheck is survival.

I get it, I really do. But I sure do hate it.


Shawn E. Fisher is a pre-college adviser with JVS in Boston.


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