A couple of hours after I posted a recent blog exploring whether college education is the best option for working-class students, our administrative assistant at the Center for Working-Class Studies came into my office, saying she wanted to talk with me about it. She raised a question I hear often from students at this largely working-class university: why do they have to take so many general education courses that don’t seem to have anything to do with their future careers? Patty’s daughter is a college freshman, and like many, she’s frustrated with having to take courses that are not related to her major. And as Patty pointed out, taking all those classes is expensive.
I gave my standard answer, one that reflects a widespread agreement, especially among liberal arts faculty: getting a broad education prepares you to be an active, critical member of society, someone who can adapt to new situations, understand the complexities of social debates, and make wise decisions about things like how to vote or how to respond to media messages. As the American Association of Colleges and Universities explains it, this sort of liberal arts education provides multiple benefits to individuals and society:
Liberal Education . . . empowers individuals and prepares them to deal with complexity, diversity, and change. It provides students with broad knowledge of the wider world (e.g. science, culture, and society) as well as in-depth study in a specific area of interest. A liberal education helps students develop a sense of social responsibility, as well as strong and transferable intellectual and practical skills such as communication, analytical and problem-solving skills, and a demonstrated ability to apply knowledge and skills in real-world settings.
It’s this kind of general education that, to a great extent, defines the difference between most technical programs and a four-year college degree. And it’s exactly what students who are pursuing B.A.s in very practical fields, like accounting or computer technology, sometimes question.
Patty and I talked for a while about her daughter’s experiences and the reasons why those liberal arts and general education courses might turn out to be useful, and then we both went back to work. But the conversation kept nagging at me. I had felt uncomfortable even as I offered my explanation, not because I don’t believe it. I do. I think that college courses on sociology, history, math, the basics of science, literature, philosophy, and so on help people learn to think better and provide an important foundation for citizenship as well as for navigating our complex world.
And yet, I couldn’t help but recognize the classism implied in my own explanation. After all, school learning isn’t the only way of understanding how the world works. Anyone who’s managed a household knows about interpersonal communication, social structures, and finance. Anyone who’s worked for a large company understands the complexity of society and the ways that power can be distributed and deployed. Those who work in the service sector, waiting tables or caring for young children, develop the ability to interpret social signals and navigate human relations. Mike Rose has documented the intellectual knowledge of the working class persuasively in his terrific book, The Mind at Work. The description of the book on his webpage reminds us of the nature of some of this knowledge, and why it matters:
The lightning-fast organization and mental calculations of the waitress; the complex spatial mathematics of the carpenter; the aesthetic and intellectual dexterity of the hair stylist—our failure to acknowledge or respect these qualities has undermined a large portion of America’s working population.
Nor is the gap between school learning and experiential knowledge absolute. A number of for-profit universities grant credit for life experience, as do some accredited public institutions, especially those offering degrees online or for non-traditional students. And many college faculty, myself included, incorporate experiential learning into our courses. Experience is the best teacher is not just a cliché.
And yet, formal education does have much to offer. It is at once intellectually broader and less immediately useful than education that focuses exclusively on preparing students for specific jobs. In his most recent book, Why School?, Rose advocates for this view. He writes,
I come from a working-class family, so I am certainly aware of the link between education and economic mobility. And as a citizen – and someone who has spent a lifetime in schools – I absolutely want to hold our institutions accountable. But I wrote Why School? to get us to consider how this economic focus, blended with the technology of large-scale assessment, can restrict our sense of what school ought to be about: the full sweep of growth and development for both individuals and for a pluralistic democracy. . . . There’s not much public discussion of achievement that includes curiosity, reflectiveness, imagination, or a willingness to take a chance, to blunder. Consider how little we hear about intellect, aesthetics, joy, courage, creativity, civility, understanding.
Rose believes that the focus of contemporary education on students’ ability to “demonstrate on a particular kind of test a particular kind of knowledge” conflicts with American ideals about equality and citizenship. Equally important, he believes that parents, and presumably college students, also want more from education.
In today’s economy, as college tuition goes up, grants and other aid cover less of the costs, and the job market tightens, both students and parents – and yes, college faculty and administrators, as well – put increasing emphasis on the practical value of higher education, too often in ways that undermine its benefits. Students rush through college, taking (and working) too many hours to have time for serious learning. Curricula that focus too narrowly on job preparation leave graduates without one of the most important benefits of higher education: improved critical thinking and learning capabilities. As Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa argue in Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, the students who learned the least in college were those in the most career-oriented programs – business, education, social work, and communications. And those are the very majors that many students choose because they want to be sure their college education leads to a better job.
All of which puts humanities professors like me – and especially those of us in working-class studies — in a quandary. How do I advocate for the value of what I teach, most of which emphasizes critical reading, writing, and thinking rather than job skills (humanities students are among the least likely to find work related to their college degrees), without denigrating the working-class knowledge that I also value? How can I best articulate the value of academic knowledge about the power structures and cultural forms that shape our diverse society (and reinforce its inequities) and developing the ability to navigate across social class divides while also encouraging students to value their own working-class culture and lived experience?
Every year, the Working-Class Studies Association conference includes multiple sessions addressing these and related questions. We talk endlessly about the contradiction between valuing working-class culture and helping our students develop the cultural capital, skills, and credentials to leave the working class. Despite all this talk, we haven’t reached many definite conclusions. But I take heart in the ongoing conversation. We may not be able to elide the contradictions of our work, but we are taking them seriously and talking together, across classes and situations, among faculty and students, in order to figure it out. That may be the best we can do.
Sherry Linkon, Center for Working-Class Studies