By Eric Garneau
For Louis Menand, the answer to navigating the liberal/vocational debate lies in tracking. That word's already somewhat buzzworthy in the education world. For grades K-12, tracking's a relatively controversial long-term plan that educates classes of children based on their aptitude. Critics argue that it unfairly judges pupils too early and condemns some to a lackluster educational track before they really have a chance to develop.
Though he doesn't set definitive guidelines for how it'd happen, Menand thinks it'd be prudent for college-bound students to be placed on tracks that divide them into those who'd be best served by a liberal arts education and those who'll need only vocational training to succeed in their adult life. To readers, it may sound just as wrong-headed and potentially horrifying as the notion of tracking grade schoolers, but Menand has research to back up his assertions.
Lost at Sea
Chief among that research is a book we've written about before, Academically Adrift, a study by sociologists Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa that suggests colleges aren't really preparing students like they should be. Specifically, they're failing a certain type of student. Arum and Roksa argue that, by their standards (which aren't necessarily above reproach), pupils who study liberal arts in college tend to show the most improvement in general skills over their four years there, probably due to the increased amounts of reading, writing and critical thinking their disciplines require. Meanwhile, those in more 'practical' fields like business, engineering and health tend to show little or no growth.
More Adrift facts to consider: the most selective institutions in the United States tend to be liberal arts colleges, and as Menand writes 'institutional selectivity correlates positively with learning.' Also, Arum and Roksa point out that students who're better prepared academically for college do better when they get there. That may seem obvious, but it also lends credence to Menand's tracking idea that successful liberal arts students make themselves known early.
A 2-Year Community
Of course there are already schools that focus on vocational training - community colleges. But even those schools typically require a modicum of general education classes. To that, Menaud asks: are they really useful? Do students care? Its nature demands that vocational training is based on utility; how useful is it for future radiology technicians to take a poetry class? Here Menand relates an anecdotal sketch that we can probably relate to - the utility-focused student in an English gen. ed. who asks 'why did we have to read this?' What's the point?
Those currently involved in the world of higher education would probably respond by saying that going to college is at least in part about discovering a world larger than yourself out there. General education courses force you to confront that world. But Menand responds that typically utility-focused students don't see the value in embracing that world, so they don't bring any effort to those courses. He also notes that among more selective institutions such malaise usually isn't present - students and teachers alike just accept that you read a lot, you take a wide birth of classes and you soak up the liberal experience.
University tracking's not the answer to all of higher education's problems, of course, and it could cause some problems of its own. It would be very troubling indeed if such tracks locked students into a fate they didn't want. A key part of the United States' college system is that its pupils have massive choice. A career-minded individual should certainly have access to a full-on liberal arts education if he or she wishes it. However, it also seems fair that that same individual should be allowed a more practical and focused (yet high-quality) college experience if it's what he or she desires. Perhaps if community colleges and less selective institutions rethink their policies on general education, those liberal arts schools that have recently come under some fire will be freer to do what they do.
What does the National Governor's Association want to do with liberal arts education?