Is technical training a certain path to obsolescence? “Beware of critics of education who cloak their desire to protect privilege (and inequality) in the garb of educational reform.” – Roth, p. xiv
This quote comes from the preface to the paperback edition of Michael Roth’s thought-provoking book, Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters. The book is a cogent defense of what Roth refers to as the pragmatic liberal arts, a broad education of the whole person that also prepares one for the challenges and opportunities of modern life and work. It is a critique of over-specialization at the expense of equipping people to think deeply and critically, to explore the breadth of possibilities, and to learn how to learn. The quote above is part of Roth’s caution about over-specialization and job training over a broader education.
For Roth (and many others), critiques of modern education are too often focused on how to get people good at specific jobs. Yet, what happens when those jobs no longer exist? In a world of constant change, isn’t specialized education just setting people up for failure and future obsolescence? I’ve made similar arguments over the years, but at this point, I find myself needing to challenge my assumptions a bit.
Is it true that a person who goes through specialized training instead of a more liberal arts education is more likely to be displaced when technological and other changes lead to that specialized training being no longer relevant?
We might be able to answer this, at least in part, with the statistics, but I don’t have them at the moment. That is an important part of the conversation. We certainly want to look at more than just individual cases. We also want to consider larger populations to see if there is any correlation between specialized training and one’s chance of becoming obsolete. How often does that happen? Is it more common for a person with specialized training compared to someone with a liberal arts degree? How might this change in the future?
What We Learn from Individual Cases
In the absence of the larger pool of data to analyze, however, I can at least note that there are ample cases where people with specialized training did not become obsolete even when their initial training became outdated, and there are plenty of examples of people with liberal arts degrees who struggle to find their niche in the workplace. When we look at individual cases, we see that one track does not determine one’s destiny because a person’s initial training is not the only formative experience for most people, nor is it the last learning experience.
The Enlightened Welder
You can go to welding school, beauty school, a specialized nursing program, a technical college, and pursue countless other specializations while also learning how to learn and unlearn, loving great literature, appreciating the arts, learning to think deeply and critically, and much more. In fact, in the book from which I drew the opening quote for this article, Roth himself praises the role MOOCs and the incredibly diverse student population in his history MOOCs. People are quite capable today to draw together a wide range of learning experiences across organizations and contexts. In other words, the alleged benefits (benefits which I support) of the liberal arts are not limited to people who attend liberal arts colleges. I remain a firm champion for the option and role of liberal arts colleges, but it would be an error for me to claim that this is the only pathway to formation as a whole person.
The “curriculum” for a learner is not limited to what an organization or program establishes. We sometimes forget that learners themselves are part of the curriculum of their lives. So are the many people in their lives, the diverse experiences in and out of school, and the full spectrum of experiences from which they learn. You can be a welder who loves to paint, takes annual cultural excursions through Italy, is working toward running your own Internet business on the side, is politically informed and active, volunteers in the local community, is learning a new language for fun in the evenings, is taking a MOOC on ancient history for fun, loves fashion and design, hosts a monthly book club, and is working on your first novel. Everything that I just stated could be true of you whether you initially went through a technical college welding program or you graduated with a degree in art history from an elite liberal arts college.
The Open Door
At the same time, I’ve seen people go through a liberal arts college with little more interest than getting passing marks or perhaps the highest mark in the class. It was about earning the grade, pleasing the professor, or just jumping through the necessary hoops to earn the degree. Upon graduation, some people expect that the degree itself should warrant open doors and new opportunities instead of thinking that such things come by who you have become as a person. And while the credential does open doors in quite a few instances, it is your competence that allows you to walk through that door.
Why Not Both?
The opening quote in this article is a warning against educational reform efforts that amplify the have and have nots in our world. It is a concern about policies or belief systems that amplify the idea that some are made for a broad and liberal arts degree while others, a lesser class of people, are better suited for the training in the trades. Yet, I see us moving into an era where this is far from an either/or debate. What is keeping one from developing specialized training while also learning to think and act wisely? These are not mutually exclusive and I’ve yet to see definitive evidence that you must start with one of these two. What is keeping a person from jumping back and forth between the two throughout life, in both formal and informal learning?
I completely agree that people and societies are better off when people are treated as whole people and not just machines to be programmed for a job. Yet, I’m not yet sold on the idea that there is a definitive or ultimately best pathway to a rich and substantive education. I’m also not willing to limit the pathways to the good life.
Technical training is not a sure path to obsolescence. It is just that there are few domains in modern work where you don’t have to learn, unlearn and relearn repeatedly. That is even true in fields that deal with much more static knowledge and information. It is also true when it comes to being an engaged citizen (communication technologies have changed what it takes to be active, informed and engaged, for example). It is even true when it comes to family life given that families live in a dynamic and changing world.
Too often our conversations about technical education versus the liberal arts are limited by our awareness of what is already happening or what is possible in the future. We limit our conversations and thinking to the categories and systems most familiar to us. That is why, interestingly enough, I persistently argue for the importance of a very liberal arts approach to the matter. Let’s get informed about the broadest possible range of possibilities. Let’s move beyond black and white, either/or constructs when it comes to such matters.
Perhaps a closer look at the statistics will reveal an important and different perspective on this issue. Yet, even in the presence of the statistical perspective, we can’t dismiss what is emerging in this connected age. Learning and learners are changing, and we are wise to take that into account as we think about how to design and re-design our learning communities.