Ivory Tower vs. Fordist Education

Bashing theory will not help us understand the role of the liberal arts or create a path forward for higher education, writes Shailja Sharma.

November 13, 2014
DePaul students

American higher education has been in a self-proclaimed crisis for the last five years, ever since MOOCs (massive open online courses) arose as a threat to the offline classroom at about the same time states imposed deep cuts in higher education budgets at many institutions. Along with rising college costs, the litany of doom and vitriol on either side of the debate has engaged in versions of the Ivory Tower vs. the Fordist education model. Andrew Rossi’s 2014 documentary, "Ivory Tower," looks at this debate from an economic perspective. Recently, the conference at St. John’s College, Santa Fe, “What is Liberal Education For?”, has indulged in some good old theory-bashing to call for a return to the Great Books curriculum. There are two aspects to this current “crisis”: first, that college is too expensive, and second, that humanities or traditional liberal education is not worth the high cost, since it doesn’t lead to good, paying jobs.

Yes, a college education has seen tuition increase exponentially. However, this trend has also gone hand-in-hand with a ballooning confidence in the value of a college degree. Before the last decade, colleges were never seen as the only route to a decent, paying job; just one among many. The death of our industrial base forced parents to see a college degree as the savior of the middle-class dream. Let us be clear: this shift was based on fear, not on evidence.

Colleges, especially, liberal arts colleges, have never been a seamless conduit to industry. That is a fallacy. Yes, college graduates have historically landed paying jobs, and are paid higher than those with high school diplomas. But this is not because they have been taught marketable skills at college. When only a small percentage of men went to college (yes, mostly they were mostly men), colleges were a great place to get to know people who might help you launch a career. In  the more elite colleges and universities, they still are. Often their liberal arts graduates got better-paid jobs because their jobs were not replicable and technological, unlike what is assumed today. They involved judgment, thought and decision-making that could not be reduced to a formula.

To a large degree, colleges still try to do that. But now they are told that this kind of education takes too long, or costs too much, or does not lead directly to jobs. Our enrollment offices are in a  frenzy about creating job preparing or “vocational” programs. This is puzzling. Why would anyone stay four years in college just to learn a vocational skill? Wouldn’t that be better taught in a shorter period on a shop floor or through a system of apprenticeship (or internship, as it is called now) or through tracking students towards vocational studies in middle school as they do in some European countries? Wouldn’t learning a trade be a more cost-effective investment?

Bashing liberal arts education is another manifestation of this unthinking criticism of universities. I work at a large, private university in the Midwest. This year, our career office tracked students in different colleges within the university for six months to see how they fared after graduation. To their surprise, they found that 88 percent of undergraduates in the College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences were in jobs in their field or in graduate school six months after graduating. This compared to 87 percent in computer science and 87 percent in business. This tells me that employers are increasingly looking for skills that are strong in basic comprehension, writing, and communication.

According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers, the top three qualities employers seek are the ability to 1. Make decisions and solve problems; 2. Verbally communicate with people inside and outside the organization and 3. Obtain and process information. Not everyone is looking for an engineer. Almost 47.9 percent of liberal arts majors were offered a full-time job in their first year of job-hunting, more than any other division. 

Could the responsibility for this rush to colleges and dissatisfaction with traditional liberal arts and sciences instead lie with our elementary and secondary schools? Unlike college, most parents have little to no choice in the types of schools their children attend. Schooling is free in the US, but free is not always good. In many American cities, schools have become de facto day care centers instead of places of learning. Their calendar, their timing, their curriculum has more to do with managing children than with educating them. Above all, each school district is dependent for most of its budget on local taxes, making schools good or bad depending on the neighborhood’s income and property taxes.

This determines the number of teachers they hire, the numbers in each classroom, the facilities, almost everything. While conservatives like Campbell Brown and Michelle Rhee blame teacher tenure, long-term studies, like the one by Sean F Reardon at Stanford, point to the discrepancy in funding and parental class background as reasons that  more profoundly determine a child’s social mobility.

If we want to really fix the links between education and earnings, we should go back to  the basics. Instead of No Child Left Behind, let us change how schools are funded so all schools and their pupils, have a more equal opportunity at learning well and learning often, at many levels. If schools remain poorly funded day cares, good at holding children in while their parents work, colleges will spend part of their four years fixing basic writing and math, and students will never get to enjoy the pleasures of thinking and developing ideas. As a result, they may get jobs, but they will find it harder and harder to have a meaningful career.



Shailja Sharma is associate dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences and associate professor of international studies at DePaul University.


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