POV: Workforce Education Can Coexist With Liberal Arts
As part of the upcoming election season, Texas voters are likely to see education at the forefront. Already Dan Patrick has made CSCOPE, a K-12 curriculum support system, a centerpiece of his bid for lieutenant governor. A debate between Patrick and CSCOPE advocate Thomas Ratliff at UT-Tyler gained national headlines suggesting that K-12 curriculum could be an issue for those seeking national office as well. Furthermore, Texas gubernatorial candidate Tom Pauken has made workforce programs a centerpiece of his campaign, thus ensuring that post-secondary education will be a focal point of the Texas Governor’s race.
I endorse the idea of improving our workforce programs, and also oppose the implementation of CSCOPE. But what has gone missing, particularly in our debates surrounding post-secondary education, is a meaningful discussion about the role and value of a traditional liberal arts education.We cannot have a valid discussion about CSCOPE or workforce programs unless we have a deeper understanding of what education is and ought to be. And community colleges, with our dual emphasis on traditional instruction and workforce education, must lead the discussion.
A traditional liberal arts education gives students a common basis of understanding from which we can begin our inquiry into topical matters. It gives students the toolsto be more self-reflective and objective in their understanding and thus move away fromtheir own presuppositions and make them more critical consumers and producers of information.
A traditional liberal arts education operates within the paradigmthat there is an enduring moral order that has the potential of being accessed through careful and patient inquiry. Without this initial understanding, we become disconnected from anything of meaning or lasting value and instead allow our whims and desires to move and define us.
As our nation moves closer towards democracy and away from a republican system of government — and as we encourage the spread of democracy to other countries — it is important to stay grounded in what enables free government to remain free.
Liberty can be sacrificed when pure democracy is pursued because pure democracy does not recognize an enduring moral order; it only recognizes the will of the majority.Without the recognition of parameters to guide decisions, democratic government is nothing more than a relativistic anarchy cloaked in the misappropriated rhetoric of liberty and equality. A traditional liberal arts education recognizes and promotes those parameters required for free governments to flourish.
Our political climate rarely leaves time or space for sincere reflection. Grandstanding has been substituted for statesmanship and talking points have taken the place of principle. If we are to create a politics that can rise above the lowest common denominator we must take the first step of identifying the core of our argument. The debate around education seems as good of a place as any to start.
Preparing students for jobs is a fundamental responsibility of all educational institutions. Unless we give students skills that will help them find employment we are doing them a disservice. But, at the risk of turning our education system into a series of tradining centers, it is importantto provide a defense forwhy a traditional liberal arts education is important on epistemic and consequentialist grounds. A liberal arts education has served as the basis for the successes of Western culture and civilization. Without the continuation of a liberal arts education we drop into relativistic arguments in which nothing is right or wrong and we compromise our happiness and freedom.
Our dedication to workforce programs and to a traditional liberal arts education can be complementary endeavors. Matthew Crawford, author of “Shopclass as Soulcraft,” echoes a sentiment put forth by Socrates in Book IV of the Republic over two millenia before. “The goal is not merely to train a technician, but to form the affections of the student, connecting his head to his heart with true judgments about what is worthy of love and what is not. If we want students to love things that are hard and demanding, such things must be recognized and publicly affirmed as being more worthy than other things that are paltry and absurd.”
The combination of these two forms of education teaches students how to do a job well, why doing so is important for reasons more than just a paycheck and teaches students how to find meaning in what they do well.
Kyle Scott teaches political science
at the University of Houston and is a member of the Board of Trustees for
Lone Star College System.