Thursday, January 5, 2012

"Critical vocationalism" as the future of humanities

At IHE, Paul Jay and Gerald Graff have an excellent (albeit somewhat long-winded) articulation of a vision of the humanities they call "critical vocationalism".  Needless to say, this is the vision that I myself favor. I'd be interested to hear people's reactions to this piece. A few choice quotes to convey the flavor:
We would be the last to argue that traditional ways of valuing the humanities are not important, that studying philosophy, literature, and the fine arts do not have a value in and of themselves apart from the skills they teach. We also recognize that the interests of the corporate world and the marketplace often clash with the values of the humanities. What is needed for the humanities in our view is neither an uncritical surrender to the market nor a disdainful refusal to be sullied by it, but what we might call a critical vocationalism, an attitude that is receptive to taking advantage of opportunities in the private and public sectors for humanities graduates that enable those graduates to apply their training in meaningful and satisfying ways. We believe such opportunities do exist.... 

If there is a crisis in the humanities, then, it stems less from their inherent lack of practical utility than from our humanistic disdain for such utility, which too often prevents us from taking advantage of the vocational opportunities presented to us. This lofty disdain for the market has thwarted the success of the few programs that have recognized that humanities graduates have much to offer the worlds of business, technology, arts agencies, and philanthropic foundations.

For ultimately, to take advantage of the vocational potential of humanities study as we propose is not to sell out to the corporate world, but to bring the critical perspective of the humanities into that world. It is a perspective that is sorely needed, especially in corporate and financial sectors that have lately been notoriously challenged in the ethics department, to say the least. Humanities graduates are trained to consider the ethical dimensions of experience, linking the humanities with the sciences as well as with business and looking at both these realms from diverse perspectives. To those who worry that what we urge would blunt the humanities' critical power, we would reply that it would actually figure to increase that power, for power after all is the ability to act in the world.


  1. Although I am very sympathetic to this approach, for my part here is where I have to draw a principled line. The line I draw is right at the word "vocationalism."

    I guess part of the reason I draw this line is as someone who grew up in an academic household, and as someone who grew up in a household in which my father was an administrator for thirty-odd years. The notion that a public or private college ought to be offering degrees that are vocational is very recent and has a history. The history can be seen somewhat in the book we read last year, Academically Adrift. Universities, mostly public universities, began offering programs, or, more often, creating whole schools, directed towards offering degrees that they could sell as accrediting graduates for a specific kind of work. They did this as a straightforward money-making scheme. So far, so good. Except that there are very few, if any, areas of study that are candidates for this kind of program.

    Once this model took off, the notion that there were specific kinds of work in which one could be accredited at a four-year, undergraduate level took off, there began a proliferation of programs and schools dedicated to this kind of "schooling." These tend to be programs and schools where there is no actual discipline to be studied, and thus no actual coherent practice to be learned, and thus no graduates with the kind of experience they were promised.

    As Arum and Roksa showed, it is precisely these kinds of programs and schools at the undergraduate level that both attract the least well-prepared students and graduate the least well-educated students.

    Here is another way of looking at it: we aren't good at this. We aren't good at vocationalism. We are good at something else: call it critical thinking, call it being a good human, call it living a good life, call it being well educated, whatever. That's what we are good at. And the bottom line is that if we try to be good a vocationalism, we will fail - we have failed, and we will fail. We will fail because that is not our purpose.

    There are institutions who do this and some of them do this well - ITT, other institutions. They should do this. We should not.

    On this score, I disagree with undergraduate institutions having programs like: engineering, pre-med, pre-law, education, business, etc. I disagree with them offering these because these are worthless as undergraduate degrees and the institutions offering them know that and because folks who want to go into these fields could be as or more competitive coming out of any major whatsoever. I disagree with them because in many cases, such as business and education, there simply is no area to be studied. To take education: there is science pedagogy, there is young adult pedagogy, there is philosophy pedagogy...but there is no such thing as "education" to be studied. It is a total invention.

  2. Becko, I am sympathetic to a lot of your points and worries about the proliferation of "vocational" institutions, but I'm not sure what your historical point was. Though it's true that colleges taking a vocational turn is recent, so is the number of people attending college and the kind of students doing so. Most people used to bypass the whole college experience and go straight into on the job vocational training. College was an elite experience for those who had an academic background. So I think we are serving a different population than we were, which raises questions about whether the traditional approach to a college education makes sense. I didn't read Academically Adrift, and I'm guessing those points might have been rehearsed there, so I'm sorry if this is repetitive.


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