First a little history: when I first began teaching at a state college in Western Pennsylvania in 1968, the area was prospering. Coal miners were working overtime. Steel mill blast furnaces blazed hell fires. Families were growing and local school systems were bursting at the seams. Teachers were in demand. And since the central mission of our college was to supply those teachers, we, teachers of teachers, were in demand as well.
By the middle of the next decade things had changed. Many of the coal mines had shut down. Foreign competition had cooled down the steel mill furnaces. The job market dried up, and families began moving out of the area. The population grew older and the local schools began losing students. All of a sudden the market for teachers evaporated, but still our college was training and graduating students with degrees in elementary education, secondary education, public school administration — students who had almost no prospect of using that education to get a job. It didn't take long for our classrooms to empty.
Something needed to be done. Classes needed to be filled. Students needed to be recruited. Students wanted programs that would lead to jobs. There had to be a reward at the end of their four years and that reward had to be a job, preferably a good job. What good was a degree, if a job didn't come with it? The solution to our problem was obvious. Build a professional program that trained students for the jobs that were out there; build it and they will come. In the late seventies and into the eighties, that program was business. Goodbye school of education, hello school of business and economics.
For awhile that worked. Students filled classes in macro economics and accounting, marketing and personnel management. Departments outside of business mined the new lode wherever they could. Sometimes successfully: the English department offered classes in business writing and advertising, the Psychology department, industrial psychology — classes which emphasized practical and more importantly potentially marketable skills. Sometimes not so successfully: the philosophy department came up with a course in business ethics for example. Ethics, it seemed, was something that didn't much interest students whose primary concern was getting a job. An English department course in Business and Literature flushed down the same drain.
The program in business and economics became the School of Business and Economics and the College became a University. And the University, which had already had a graduate program in education, begat new programs in business. And the graduate programs in business begat a tidal wave of MBA's. And the tidal wave of MBA's flooded western Pennsylvania, which after all is not exactly a center of financial activity like, say, lower Manhattan. It didn't take long before classes in macro economics and business writing went the way of classes in education a decade earlier.
Again, something needed to be done. Classrooms needed to be filled. Along came Computer Science…Well, you get the idea.
There is a problem, unquestionably: Vocational education, be it business or computer science or professional chicken farming, is only valued as long as there is a viable vocation waiting for those with the diplomas. Students will flock to those programs offering the possibility of good paying jobs; students will run like thieves from those that don't. Unfortunately colleges and universities are not well built to supply programs that expand and contract with the job market. New programs require time to develop. Old programs cannot easily be discarded. Qualified people to teach in new areas are often difficult to recruit. Professors in disciplines no longer in favor may have tenure; they may have union protections which keep them lecturing to empty classrooms. Yet, in a year or two, the new program may be obsolete and the old one may be again in demand, empty classrooms once again filled.
Professional education is essential to a country's economic well being. Professional education is what many of our prospective students want. There is no question but that there is an obligation to provide it; there is also no question that it is not necessarily the college that should provide it. Professional education and higher education are not synonymous. Professional education should be the province of professional schools.
The goal of higher education, it seems to me, should be to provide students with a knowledge of what the nineteenth century social critic and poet, Matthew Arnold, called "the best that has been known and thought in the world." It should teach students how to think for themselves, how to critically evaluate the ideas of others. It should give them a base upon which to build some specialized professional study. And if in some unknowable future that specialized profession should go the way of the dodo, they will still have that base to fall back upon, and perhaps build anew. Call that base general education. Call it liberal education. Call providing that base common sense.
Recently I heard a teacher of professional journalism defending the continuance of the program in the light of current doom and gloom in the newspaper industry. She claimed that what they were trying to do was educate students to new models for professional activity. Now while such models may or may not be real, one has to at least question the motivation of someone touting them as motivation for students to enter a program of study in what may well be a dying industry. Still, if that's what students want, by all means let them have it, but let's not confuse it with higher education.