by Will Katerberg.
The battle for hearts and minds—and dollars—in higher education today often comes down to job training versus critical thinking.
It sometimes is hard for advocates of becoming an artist or studying philosophy to even get a hearing. When they say that students should do what they love or argue that cultural life is what ennobles a society, they’re dismissed as elitist or impractical. The high cost of education demands focusing on practical outcomes.
Boiled down, the debate today too often sounds like this. Which is more practical, a degree that gives your career a jump start by preparing you for your first job? Or flexible critical thinking skills that may leave you a bit slower out of the gate, but will equip you to succeed over a lifetime of work in multiple fields?
When a student training to become an accountant asks why she needs to take core classes in geology, French, religion, music, and psychology, advocates of general education requirements explain that critical thinking skills will prepare her to adapt to new jobs in different fields of work, not just train that first job. She is more likely get a promotion to management with intellectual breadth that equips her to do more than balance the books and hold off the IRS. She should work hard in her business major, but get her degree at a liberal arts oriented college and throw herself into her core courses too.
Teachers like me in the humanities and social sciences tell prospective majors much the same thing. In earning a degree in history you will learn how to research, read evidence, analyze competing concepts and theories, make arguments, and communicate effectively. These skills can be adapted to suit many jobs and lead to successful careers in many fields.
I can point to history graduates who are lawyers, physicians, business owners, and clergy, work for NGOs, museums, corporations, and government, and succeed in multiple careers. Some even become teachers! A friend of mine with a history degree has successfully taught high school, worked as a speech writer in politics, and now is the communication director for a medical school.
But are job training and critical thinking enough, as the contemporary Gradgrinds say? Is this all there should be to college?
In a variety of essays and a recent book, the president of Wesleyan University Michael Roth suggests that it’s not enough. It’s not just the crude measuring of an education in terms of getting that first job or even a lifetime of jobs. It’s also how critical thinking by itself can incline us to be aloof and inhibit flourishing lives and communities.
Critical thinking easily makes students detached, Roth argues. They hold the things they study at a distance. “A common way to show that one has sharpened one’s critical thinking is to display an ability to see through or undermine statements made by (or beliefs held by) others,” he observes. “For many students today, being smart means being critical.”
Learning easily becomes a game. “The skill at unmasking error, or simple intellectual one-upmanship, is not completely without value,” Roth allows; “but we should be wary of creating a class of self-satisfied debunkers.”
We all—students, parents, faculty, and society—should demand more of education than both job training and critical thinking. Four years of study and $100,000 deserve better. Students will go on to do more than work and consume. They will be citizens, live in communities, join churches, participate in civic organizations, and raise families.
“In learning, we retain impressions of the world around us and retain our relationships with other people— that is, we develop habits that help us to navigate in the world,” Roth explains in Beyond the University. “This learning is potent as long as we remain active in seeking new impressions and building on our existing relationships. If, however, we develop habits that just allow us to conform to the world around us, to fit into existing conditions, then we have learned to stop learning.”
Critical thinking helps a person see through existing conditions and the conformist habits and values that sustain them, in a way that narrow job training does not. But critique alone cannot help a person envision an alternative. It’s more likely to lead to cynicism.
The “liberal education” that students get at places like Calvin College is rooted in deep traditions of humanism, whether that of a specific religious heritage or in a secular or pluralist setting. In core courses across the sciences, social sciences, humanities, and arts, students encounter and study visions of the good life from diverse times and places. Their teachers can help them cultivate their imaginations in ways that are hopeful and critical. If that doesn’t happen, they’re either not getting their money’s worth or not paying attention.
In a history or literature class, for example, students should not just learn about the times, places, and literature that they study, but also try to learn from them. They should learn not just how to critique the traditions in which they were raised, but also how to make those traditions their own and adapt them to the needs of their own time.
Graduates should have learned to be critical in that they can recognize the parochial, prejudiced and potentially dangerous qualities of any vision of the good life, including that in their own society. They should have cultivated a hopeful imagination as they explore not just how the world is but how it might be. Liberal education should be about both critique and passing on these things from one generation to the next.
Roth’s book shows that debates over the purpose of higher education go back to the colonial and Revolutionary eras, with Ben Franklin dismissing liberal education as elitist and irrelevant and Thomas Jefferson viewing it as essential to democracy and civic life. We can learn from the history Roth tells in Beyond the University.
Job training and critical thinking skills are legitimate goals and part of liberal education. But those who reduce education to them are selling their birthright for a mess of pottage.
William Katerberg’s areas of focus are the history of ideas, the North American West, environmental history, and world history. He is the chairperson of the History Department at Calvin College.