Postsecondary education occurs across a variety of different settings, and obviously some of those settings are designed to train people for specific skills, possibly for jobs or credentials. In a way, these settings substitute for an older system of apprenticeship. But there is an important difference.
The older system provided predictable rewards for those who were able to pass their apprenticeship. A plumber’s apprentice would eventually enter the field as a licensed plumber, with a reasonable expectation of a stable working life. Now I fear that people are now being taught specific technical skills that are bound to become obsolete. It may become more and more difficult for individuals who undergo a series of job changes to get the training they would need to continue in the work force at a level that is consistent with their expectations.
For those of us in the human sciences, the practical value of higher education lies in preparing students for a fluctuating job market where they may need to change jobs at least seven times and for a working life that is enhanced by the ability to think critically. The latter is the key value and what we should provide if we are to say that what we do is educate.
By the ability to think “critically” I mean to be able to think of how what is learned is connected to the collective life of society. This requires questioning the validity of assumptions that are ordinarily difficult to question. It also requires considering whether a particular action adequately takes account of consequences beyond its immediate scope, and retaining a sense of the complexity of a problem even when it has been simplified for ostensibly practical reasons. All of this requires an appreciation of the difference between dialogue, in which critical thinking takes place as a process of collective deliberation, and debate, in which case individuals pit their opinions against those of other individuals in such a way that someone wins and no one learns.
As important as the issue of class is in regard to higher education, it is also important to remember that there has been a continuing struggle to make higher education available to as many as possible and to do so without compromising the idea of what C. Wright Mills referred to as a concern for truth, by which I suppose he means honesty to a fault. This struggle assumes that there is a special value embodied in education, insofar as education is about critical thinking.
Unions, anti-racist organizations, the women’s movement, and other progressive organizations have been at the forefront of that struggle. The degree of success has been sufficient for us to say now that higher education has taken its place as a far more democratically oriented institution than in most other countries. What that history seems to reveal about the value of critical education suggests that there is at least something about it that operates across class boundaries.
There are many problems in higher education that have to do with class differences, at least at the level of how material is taught and what is emphasized. Why should colleges and universities be thought of as different from the rest of society in that regard? That we need to help students think of their working futures goes without saying. The question is: What, after that is taken into account, do we mean by education? We should not reduce education to the preparation for specific jobs or even what used to be called “vocations.” Without minimizing the importance of preparing students for a job market, the question that most concerns me is how do we deal with the threat to the centrality of the human sciences in higher education, and how can we defend that centrality.
I think that the history of ideas and the history of democratic theory give us that defense and establish its adequacy; and so our problem may be to give the reasons for this centrality a more public life. At the same time, perhaps we need to work harder to insure that what we do as teachers is consistent with what the centrality of the human sciences requires of us and of our institutions.