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Education, wilt thou leave me so unsatisfied?

Sitting in a Shakespeare class turns my thoughts towards Jolly Old England.

A recent article in a British newspaper (“Being a Student Doesn’t Suit All?) laments the decline of the age-old English tradition of apprenticeship, asserting (as its title suggests) that being a student isn’t right for everyone. Many students, it argues, will benefit more from hands-on craft- or trade-based training, than from heady, academic learning. This in the face of a tremendous push by the government to increase university enrollment to 50% of young adults in the U.K. by 2010.

This push for higher education is certainly familiar back here in the good old U.S. of A. College enrollment in America has been steadily rising since the Second World War, encouraged first by the GI Bill and then by a host of federally sponsored grants, loans, and tax benefits. At present, 45% of 18 – 20 year-olds and 35% of 21 – 25 year-olds are in college. Lacking the well entrenched culture and practice of apprenticeship, vocational education emerged in America instead, locating the learning of practical skills within the realm of institutional higher education rather than nurturing a culture of such learning independent of a formal education system. Technical colleges are, after all, colleges.

What is happening as America becomes more and more educated? It is easy to be swept along by the tide of proeducational propaganda that asserts “more is better.? Education is, we believe, the key to unlocking the American Dream: go to school to get a firm grip on your bootstraps. Then pull up. But gone are the days when a college degree is a guarantee of an (upper) middle class lifestyle. So why do we continue to push college education? What does a diploma mean? Will the economy keep pace and provide opportunities that satisfy college graduates? Or will more and more graduates experience a life of being “underemployed??

This line of questioning seems to forget, however, the value of education for its own sake. As I have taught undergraduate college students for the last six years, I have observed that the appreciation of education—for personal enrichment and satisfaction—is wanting. Students are paying more than ever for college and rather than deepening the intrinsic value of education, the growing expense transforms students into defensive consumers and translates academic majors into salaries. Conversations of learning, the pleasure of academic challenge, and a critique of knowledge and knowledge production are drowned out by concerns of paying the bills, amassing excessive debt, and the despair that a college education won’t pay off—literally.

But what about the English apprenticeships? We’re not going to change the culture of American education anytime soon. That is, college enrollments are going to continue to increase and no one is going to establish a viable apprenticeship program (Donald Trump and NBC’s overhyped version doesn’t count).

So why not fuse the two? In engineering programs, internships have functioned effectively (and often efficiently) as apprenticeships of a sort, giving a student practical work experience that frequently leads to employment. But engineering is, ultimately, a practical field of study. What about the social sciences, arts, and humanities—the fields that undeniably enrich our lives and our world, but majors that, in most cases, don’t pay off?

Well, why can’t the heady, academic stuff coexist with the gritty, hands-on stuff? If these academic fields can align themselves with practical, marketable work in the real world and give students opportunity to work in viable economic sectors, their graduates just might find their vocation. Finding a vocation means satisfaction, and satisfaction remedies underemployment and a life of career hopping. Education and satisfaction—what college grad wouldn’t want that?

Comments

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While I agree that there needs to be a practical outcome for education at all levels, your post seems to gloss over the rich range of benefits of education in and of itself.

If we want to reform our culture of education, maybe we should find ways to build a culture that values education that doesn't attach it to capitalist notions of career, employment, and consumerism. Is it too starry-eyed and romantic to wish for a well-educated culture that genuinely values rich and well-informed conversations, whether at the coffee shop, dinner table, or legislative forums?

When did education become job training? Maybe the move isn't to move it closer to apprenticeship, but rather further away. Instead of making it "more practical" as if life is nothing more than economic survival, distinguish it as a enriching—and potentially liberating—human activity that creates a quality of life indescribable by economic theories.