Tuesday, April 24, 2018
Opinion

Helping students find their place in the world

Debates about the nature of higher education are often framed by the question of whether vocational elements or liberal arts elements should dominate in the curriculum. This is a mistake.

Human beings generally need to foster their development along four dimensions: They need to prepare themselves for bread-winning work; for civic and political engagement; for creative self-expression and world-making; and for rewarding relationships.

We can't do without the skills, knowledge and understanding that enable us to make a living. But neither can we do without a related set of skills that help us understand who we are as human beings so that we can make reasonable choices about what, individually and collectively, we should do. How should we direct our creative capacities? What should be our shared political ideals and goals? What are the sources of satisfaction in private relationships?

When we consider education from the perspective of the collective, instead of the individual, and ask whether a citizenry generally is being educated as needed, there often seems to be a mismatch between what people choose to learn and the available jobs. The philosopher Plato seems to have been motivated by a similar frustration. He imagined a utopia ruled by a philosopher-king in which, from birth, everyone would be slotted into a particular occupational group and educated to excel to the highest degree within that occupation. Some would be farmers, some craftsmen and traders, some soldiers, and some political leaders. From a bird's-eye view, the state would know from an individual's birth who should be what.

Here and there we can see policy efforts that, in the name of efficiency, seek to apply to education the kinds of information that can be acquired from a bird's-eye view. For instance, Florida is reshaping its community college curriculum by setting up in particular areas degree programs in vocational specialties that labor demographers identify as undersupplied in that location.

There is, of course, nothing wrong with putting real opportunities in front of people. But we don't want to craft an environment where people fail to come to their own understanding of what they should try to do because as a nation we are justifiably trying to increase the efficiency with which we match human capital to the labor market. For this reason, it is necessary to have a liberal arts element infused throughout the curriculum at all levels: in K-12 and community colleges as well as four-year colleges and universities.

Just as we should want to cultivate capacities for self-knowledge (to support vocational choices, among other reasons) we must also recognize that an element of self-knowledge includes being able to see how one's competencies connect to the diversity of methods available for self-support. One needs to understand oneself; one also needs to be able to see the vocational opportunities that are out there.

In our restructured world of work — which has a range of service jobs and knowledge jobs that are not captured by the traditional professions and trades; where people will change areas of specialization multiple times over their working lives — simply seeing the opportunities is hard. To this end, the Mellon Foundation, on whose board I serve, has been supporting the placement of students who have earned doctorates in the humanities — people who have, in other words, committed themselves most fully to an education in the liberal arts — into non-academic jobs. The goal is to help those whose education has tipped more toward the liberal arts acquire the observational attunement necessary to see the range of occupational possibilities.

Each of us is best positioned to be the expert on ourselves; this is why self-knowledge is so important. This is the reason we each have to find our own way in the world, rather than letting someone — for instance, a philosopher-king — place us once and for all in a particular position.

Our contemporary situation demands that we help our young people find their way by marrying the cultivation of self-knowledge to a worldly capacity to see practical opportunities. This requires a curriculum that unifies liberal arts and vocational elements at all levels.

Danielle Allen is the UPS Foundation professor of social science at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J. She serves on the boards of the Mellon Foundation, Princeton University and Amherst College.

© 2012 Washington Post

Comments

Correction

CorrectionCircuit Judge John Stargel of Lakeland is a member of the Florida Constitution Revision Commission who voted against a proposed amendment that would have stopped write-in candidates from closing primary elections. An editorial Saturday inco...
Updated: 12 hours ago
Editorial: Pruitt sets new low for ethics at EPA

Editorial: Pruitt sets new low for ethics at EPA

Not too many people took then-candidate Donald Trump seriously when he famously campaigned to "drain the swamp" as president. But that shouldn’t give this administration a free pass to excuse the behavior of Scott Pruitt, the administrator of the Env...
Published: 04/22/18
Updated: 04/23/18
Editorial: Allegiant Air still has safety issues

Editorial: Allegiant Air still has safety issues

Allegiant Air’s safety record remains troubling, and the Federal Aviation Administration’s reluctance to talk about it is no more encouraging. Those are the key takeaways from a 60 Minutes report on the low-cost carrier’s high rate of mid-flight brea...
Published: 04/21/18

Editorial: Women’s work undervalued in bay area

Even a strong economy and low unemployment cannot overcome the persistent pay gap affecting full-time working women in Florida. A new report shows women in Florida earned 12.5 percent less on average than their male counterparts, and the disparities ...
Published: 04/21/18
Editorial: Florida’s death penalty fading away on its own

Editorial: Florida’s death penalty fading away on its own

Florida lawmakers may never take the death penalty off the books, but stronger forces are steadily eroding this inhumane, outdated tool of injustice. Court rulings, subsequent changes to law and waning public support have significantly suppressed the...
Updated: 10 hours ago

Editorial: A missed chance for open primary elections

The Florida Constitution Revision Commission did a lot of things wrong this week by combining unrelated or unpalatable provisions into single amendments that will appear on the November ballot. It also wasted an opportunity to do one thing right. The...
Published: 04/20/18
Updated: 04/23/18
Editorial: New Cuba president is chance for new start

Editorial: New Cuba president is chance for new start

For all the symbolism, Raul Castro’s handoff of the Cuban presidency this week amounts to less than meets the eye even if his handpicked successor, the Communist Party functionary Miguel Diaz-Canel Bermudez, is the first person not named Castro to le...
Published: 04/20/18
Editorial: When they visit Nature’s Classroom, kids are right where they belong

Editorial: When they visit Nature’s Classroom, kids are right where they belong

The Hillsborough school district planted a fruitful seed with the opening of Nature’s Classroom five decades ago on the cypress-lined banks of the Hillsborough River northeast of Tampa. • The lessons taught there to some 17,000 sixth graders each yea...
Published: 04/20/18

Editorial: Equality pays off on Southwest Flight 1380

The passengers of Southwest Flight 1380 can be thankful that, 33 years ago, the U.S. Navy took the lead on equal opportunity.Capt. Tammie Jo Shults was piloting the flight from New York to Dallas on Tuesday when an engine exploded, blowing out a wind...
Published: 04/19/18
Updated: 04/20/18
Editorial: Why single-member districts would be bad for Hillsborough commission

Editorial: Why single-member districts would be bad for Hillsborough commission

Anyone looking to make Hillsborough County government bigger, costlier, more dysfunctional and less of a regional force should love the idea that Commissioner Sandy Murman rolled out this week. She proposes enlarging the seven-member board to nine, e...
Published: 04/19/18
Updated: 04/20/18