by Joyce Helens, President, St. Cloud Technical & Community College
Who’s to blame for the shortsighted “either-or” mentality regarding higher education’s offerings of liberal arts vs. technical education?
Well, I’d start with the Greeks.
In ancient Greece, mastering certain subjects was considered essential for a person to take an active role in society. Being a good citizen meant knowing how to publicly debate and defend oneself in court. Grammar, logic and rhetoric were core studies, and these “arts” were supposed to make citizens virtuous, articulate and knowledgeable.
In the Middle Ages, however, when learning moved under the purview of the church, the three core arts of the Greeks were extended to include four more classical studies of music, arithmetic, geometry and astronomy. The Quadrivium, as it was called, was the core liberal arts curriculum in the medieval university.
So I guess the church can also pick up some of the blame.
But there is plenty of blame to go around! Italian humanists during the Renaissance renamed the grammatical and rhetorical traditions of the Middle Ages: Studia humanitatis, and also extended its scope.
Poetry, for example, emerged as an important area of study. This educational curriculum spread throughout Europe, and the ideal of a liberal arts education grounded in classical languages and literature persisted until the middle of the 20th century.
In 1862, President Abraham Lincoln signed into law the Morrill Act, setting up a system of public colleges throughout the United States. The purpose of these land-grant colleges was, in part, to “promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes in the several pursuits and professions in life.”
This became liberal arts vs. vocational education.
Where did learning go wrong?
“Liberal arts” in the 20th century related to the idea of an education emphasizing critical thinking, clear written and oral communication, and the ability to think and learn across disciplines. It also meant “not relating” to professional, vocational or technical curricula.
Who can we blame for this? Lincoln? Or perhaps Woodrow Wilson, who in 1909 stated, “We want one class of persons to have a liberal education and we want another class of persons, a very much larger class of necessity, to forgo the privileges of a liberal education.”
As though being a good worker and being a good citizen were separate. As though we have to make a decision between “being” and doing.”
So, who can we blame? We are to blame.
Our school systems historically cut us in pieces instead of making us whole. We spend 50 minutes on individual subjects as though they were stand-alone thoughts. We measure success by standardized test scores. We have sent a message that is as ingrained as the ruts are on the Oregon Trail that if you work with your hands, if you are a tactile learner, that you are not as good as the students who sit quietly in rows and can regurgitate information.
And we have made the latter the norm. We have created curricula, degrees and educational institutions that silo essential learning, and therefore we have shortchanged decades of students by telling half of them they can succeed and the other half to get a job; you are not college material.
Education got off track a long time ago. But it is not too hard to get it right, to get it back on track.
When St. Cloud Technical & Community College chose to become a comprehensive college after decades of being a technical college, we were affirming that taking a direct track to employment includes a broad vision of the world, learning to think independently, making sound judgments and being able to clearly communicate with others. This is why we are successful today.
We see the value of a technically-based education that lays the foundation for a career while also preparing students to compete in the marketplace of ideas.
It should not surprise anyone that these skills are essential for success in a global economy, for being an informed citizenship, and for employers whether they are hiring welders, machinists, nurses, engineers, sales reps or managers.
Real jobs are necessary if we live in the real world. We prepare students both broadly and specifically for the real world, and we are proud to say that we are “a college that works.”