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Are Vocational Education, Liberal Arts on a Collision Course?

As even liberal arts colleges continue to turn their back on the liberal arts, where will the technocrats produced by higher education hone their thinking skills to address the current crisis in governing?

Last year, in Liberal Arts at the Brink, I analyzed changes between 1987 and 2008 in the majors of graduates from 225 private liberal arts colleges identified as the “Best” by U.S. News. The analysis revealed a substantial increase in the percentage of graduates whose majors were vocational (as opposed to liberal arts)—from 10.6 percent to 27.1 percent.

Data for 2011 graduates are now available from the U.S. Department of Education’s Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System. That year, two of the 225 colleges lost or gave up their accreditation and ceased operation; at the remaining 223 colleges, vocational majors have continued to increase, to 29.1 percent.

In 2008, 12 of the colleges graduated no vocational majors. In 2011, that number fell to 10; the number of colleges graduating less than 10 percent vocational majors dropped from 56 to 52; the number graduating 30 percent or more vocational majors rose from 118 to 120; and the number graduating 50 percent or more vocational majors climbed from 51 to 55. (Indeed, in 2011, 22 of the colleges graduated between 60.1 and 88.1 percent vocational majors, raising a question as to the correctness of classifying them as liberal arts colleges.)

Colleges and universities are now adding new undergraduate majors at a great rate, almost all of them vocational. The current edition of U.S. News’Best Colleges reports the University of California system has responded “to workplace demand” by introducing 38 new majors this year alone. U.S. News touts nine “hot new majors,” all vocational, including homeland security, information assurance/cyber security, new media, and computer game design.

Young people are being advised to pursue directly career-related majors, rather than “impractical” liberal arts, by almost everyone – nervous parents; high school counselors; educational consultants; business leaders; and local, state, and federal officials. Anthony Carnevale, who heads the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University, says American colleges and universities “need to streamline their programs, so they emphasize employability,” meaning that the college years are explicitly “preparing for an occupation.”

President Obama concurs. “Education,” he says, “is an economic issue. Folks need a college degree. They need workforce training. They need a higher education . . . to make sure our graduates are ready for a career, ready to meet the challenges of the 21st century economy.” Secretary of Education Arne Duncan adds, “The challenge of producing the best-educated, most competitive workforce in the world is not just a question of national pride, it is an economic imperative.”

With all respect, let me suggest another “imperative.” Today, the U.S. Congress is dysfunctional. The nation is mired in a mind-numbing political season, bombarded with often wildly inconsistent, wantonly dissembling, and obviously impossible claims. Beliefs are uncritically accepted as facts; prejudices asserted as truths. The possibility there could be even a scintilla of validity in what an opposing candidate or party says is rejected out of hand. That we might learn something from history that is useful now is routinely ignored.

Just as an educated workforce is needed to overcome economic challenges, so to an educated citizenry is needed to overcome the governing crisis we face. Thoughtful citizens, capable of thinking critically, alert to the lessons of history, and unwilling to blindly accept unsupported assertions, are desperately needed if leaders are to be held accountable. The question is will the critical thinking skills responsible citizenship demands be inspired and nurtured by vocational courses of study such as new media or electronic game design. It seems unlikely.