Tuesday, September 9, 2014

FLG Goes Back To Tocqueville

There are a few passages from Tocqueville of which FLG is particularly fond of posting and reposting.   This article about how a hodgepodge of online courses will never replace a proper degree makes FLG want to post one of them again.

Enter the “nano-degree.” If you can’t “disrupt” education through innovation, the thinking goes, just downsize it so much that it becomes training for just one task that a particular company wants at one particular moment.
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We’ve seen this many times before in American history. As I recently pointed out in Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters, Booker T. Washington wanted to help ex-slaves acquire practical skills so they could become self-sufficient after the Civil War. And around the time of World War I, chambers of commerce and labor federations united to back legislation for a dual secondary educational system. According to that plan, some young people would be trained for specific jobs, while others would get a broad education allowing them to continue their studies in college. The movement led to the Smith-Hughes Act of 1917 to finance vocational instruction.
Those who opposed this vocational turn certainly realized that people needed skills to get jobs. But they also realized that this kind of tracking would only exacerbate social and economic inequality. As John Dewey wrote, some of us “are managers and others are subordinates. But the great thing for one as for the other is that each shall have had the education which enables him to see within his daily work all there is in it of large and human significance.”
Education should aim to enhance our capacities, Dewey argued, so that we are not reduced to being somebody else’s tool. “The kind of vocational education in which I am interested is not one which will ‘adapt’ workers to the existing industrial regime; I am not sufficiently in love with the regime for that.”
This is what Udacity is missing in its willingness to tailor its program to the existing industrial regime’s immediate needs. “You'll learn skills that match industry demands,” the company promises on its website. “With the credentials to prove it.” Fiona M. Hollands of Teachers College Columbia University voiced cautious approval, telling the Times: “We still need rounded people, which you can’t get through mini-certificate courses. But we also have an economy to run here.” Those who make the most lasting contribution to the economy, however, will be the “rounded people.”

FLG, who is deeply skeptical of all things John Dewey, thinks we ought to heed this passage from Alexis de Tocqueville:

It is important that this point should be clearly understood. A particular study may be useful to the literature of a people without being appropriate to its social and political wants. If men were to persist in teaching nothing but the literature of the dead languages in a community where everyone is habitually led to make vehement exertions to augment or to maintain his fortune, the result would be a very polished, but a very dangerous set of citizens. For as their social and political condition would give them every day a sense of wants, which their education would never teach them to supply, they would perturb the state, in the name of the Greeks and Romans, instead of enriching it by their productive industry. It is evident that in democratic communities the interest of individuals as well as the security of the commonwealth demands that the education of the greater number should be scientific, commercial, and industrial rather than literary. Greek and Latin should not be taught in all the schools; but it is important that those who, by their natural disposition or their fortune, are destined to cultivate letters or prepared to relish them should find schools where a complete knowledge of ancient literature may be acquired and where the true scholar may be formed. A few excellent universities would do more towards the attainment of this object than a multitude of bad grammar-schools, where superfluous matters, badly learned, stand in the way of sound instruction in necessary studies.

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