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The Purposes of Post-Secondary Education

In my previous blog post on systems of stress I traversed a fair amount of my professional and personal experiences from 2017. I also got into some contentious political topics, especially in relation to higher ed. A casual read of that post might lead you to conclude that I have a fairly narrow belief about the purpose of post-secondary education, and that I’m dismissive of vocational outcomes in higher ed. Nothing could be further from the truth. This post aims to provide a bit of clarification, because this is in truth a complicated topic.

To begin with, the purposes of educational institutions in general and in America in particular are multilayered to say the least. K-12 schools simultaneously serve to provide people with a basic education so that they can have better lives, function as systems of social norming and cultural reproduction, effectively exert control over children in ways that are socially beneficial and arguably harmful, as well as having a whole host of other effects. It’s also essential to recognize that the weighting of which functions are most strongly served by our public K-12 schools has shifted and changed over time. The comprehensive high school in particular is definitely not the same institution it was when there was consistent and effective funding for both vocational and college preparatory studies. The focus on assessment through standardized testing has also had a profound and lasting effect on how schools work and what they ask of (and do to) both students and teachers.

Post-secondary institutions are at least as varied as their primary and secondary counterparts in terms of their purposes, but there has at least historically been a key difference between the way those purposes are realized. Where all of the different aims of education are stacked within a single type of institution in K-12 schools, there are a plurality of different post-secondary institutions. Some of them are nested in larger institutional frameworks, and others stand entirely apart from one another, but regardless they have served distinct and valuable purposes.

There is certainly some degree of overlap, but it’s worth recognizing that the function of 2 year institutions is in many way different from smaller 4 year schools, and that universities which include a focus on graduate education and research are in turn a different thing that can provide different value. Furthermore, even in the context of research 1 institutions, there are generally different schools and different divisions that provide very different types of services and support very different outcomes from one another. The School of Education at UW-Madison which I graduated from has teacher and administrator education built into it as vital vocational learner outcomes that sit alongside the aim of preparing educational researchers to contribute to the field, and supporting the development of new technological and curricular tools through research and partnerships.

So, to get to the heart of the matter, I mentioned in the previous post that there has been a concerted effort by politicians like senator and former Florida Governor Rick Scott to limit the scope of colleges and universities to creating an able workforce. I’m strongly critical of these sorts of efforts, but not because I don’t think that institutes of higher education shouldn’t be involved in vocational education, or that outcomes that improve people’s capabilities and opportunities in the job market aren’t worthwhile, but rather because I believe that educational institutions can and should do a lot more than just serve capitalist aims. In fact, schools more broadly can at their best help to balance the innate tension between capitalism and democracy by educating learners to not only have the skills to be effective workers, but also have the capacity for critical thought that can help them become part of an informed electorate.

Returning, to the question of supporting vocational learning in post-secondary education, these outcomes have in truth been the province of two year colleges and continuing education/extension divisions of universities for a very long time. These are necessary and highly laudable outcomes, and they are among other things eminently practical ones for both learners and society. It is in fact for these reasons that I volunteered to work on the University Learning Store in the first place. I saw the aim of networking with educational institutions and employers to develop a set of meaningful micro-credentials for learners as a fundamentally worthwhile one to pursue. I still believe that it can be. I also believed that the continuing education division of UW-Extension was a natural place for this sort of work to occur, and that as long as we could help to create an employer demand for these micro-credentials as a tool that actually signified meaningful workforce competency, that we could be providing an extremely valuable service for learners who didn’t need an entire degree or certification in order to reach their employment related objectives.

Still, I also need to reinforce the critique that I offered in the previous post around a program like the University Learning Store in terms of potential unintended consequences. The moment that those micro-credentials become a fragmented instructorless path that nonetheless stacks towards credit equivalency and is being marketed not towards continuing education learners, but towards traditional students, we find ourselves wading into very dangerous territory. Whether higher education classroom instruction (physical or virtual) is doing a good job of cultivating critical thought and problem solving at current or not, one thing that’s fairly evident to me is that substituting self-guided resources for human interaction is a solid way to minimize the strength of these outcomes. If what you want out of educational institutions is the production of a capable workforce that is docile on matters of civic engagement, and doesn’t critically consume its news sources, removing opportunities for direct intellectual engagement with faculty and other students is a great way to get there.

Ultimately, I believe that the development of advanced critical thinking skills is an essential outcome of higher education, but that it certainly isn’t the only one our institutions need to produce. I also want to emphasize that the sort of teaching and learning focus that traditionally attends instruction in 2 year schools means that these institutions are by no means divorced from helping to produce critical thinkers who can be active and engaged citizens. After all, community colleges place a much greater emphasis on teaching and learning than their R1 counterparts and this can result in both vocational and civic outcomes  resulting from the post-secondary experience. Supporting this type of work is one of the various professional activities that I’ve found personally rewarding in the past, and in large part it’s the reason I’ve spent as much time as I have in both the public and private sector focused on workplace learning and programs that help people in their career goals. It’s only when the liberal arts and humanities are actively being denigrated by politicians and edged out of the curriculum that I believe there is cause to worry, and in these circumstances I wind up personally conflicted as public figures will champion programs I believe in for purposes I oppose.

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