OPINION: Liberal arts education and vocational education; Citizens need both and society can afford both

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Many people have long debated whether society should be providing its youth with a vocational education or a liberal arts education. For much of African American society, it seems to have come to a head in the contentions ascribed to W.E.B. DuBois as opposed to those ascribed to Booker T. Washington. It can still be heard as advocates say things like, “not everybody is college material,” “the key to life is having marketable skills,” and “everybody has a right to a first-rate education.” Our message here is that individuals without one or the other is already or will be short-changed for life.

The concept of liberal arts education embraced here includes a curriculum that looks at all domains of knowledge, acquainting students with each, to the extent that he/she can understand the world, the physical and human environment in which he/she lives; a curriculum that helps students gain an understanding of and appreciation for the cultures of fellow human beings past and present; a curriculum that helps students understand their own psychological makeup and the elements of human nature; and a curriculum that helps students appreciate and develop their own critical and creative thinking skills.

Even as the writer tries to explain the concept and elements of a liberal arts education, he realizes that even for many who have graduated from college, all of that was just “stuff” that they had to endure in order to get a degree. Many of them quickly put it away and leave it packed as they do the few books that they did not sell. To the extent that they did so, they reveal that they have graduated, but are not educated.

The liberal arts component, if successful, helps to diminish prejudices against other groups and individuals. It helps diminish provincialism. It helps develop and expand community. It causes one to embrace the concept of humanity. Contrarily, if an individual spent his/her time in college and learns to be more snobbish or less compassionate of those in lower economic circumstances, he/she has missed the boat and merely exaggerates the negative qualities that were embedded and/or that were products of his/her admired associates.

In short, the positive products of a liberal arts education are things from which all people could benefit. Furthermore, all individuals should have access to them as a part of their birthright.

The concept of vocational education may be much easier to explain, but it is of no less importance. In today’s context, vocational education is more than learning a particular trade, although that is a start. It is more than learning to work with one’s hands, even though that too is a start and is what therapists refer to as “occupational therapy.” It is learning things that enable one to perform at a particular job. Further, it is important to realize that an individual is likely to have to learn and become competent at several different job skills and a worker will have to periodically update or revise the skills of his/her job.

An individual without a degree of vocational education is handicapped, if not at the mercy of those so educated, when there is a need for things to be built, maintained, or repaired. There is a reason why those who are vocationally educated are said to have “marketable skills.” It is because they have mastered a curriculum that is practical or for which there is an economic demand. They can sell their skills to others who need, desire, or can use the skills. 

Of course, we must pause here and indicate that marketable skills do and may also include the skills of athletes, musicians, and others who have been endowed with and further developed those skills. The same holds true for computer specialists, doctors, lawyers, engineers, nurses, and other professionals who have marketable skills. Vocational education is thus not just the domain for working-class people.

As we argue for the idea that societies should promote or advocate for both liberal arts education and vocational education, we are advancing the idea that those who are vocationally-trained are not only essential to society. They must be respected and rewarded as highly as other contributors to society, not assigned to the middle lower rungs of society.

A vocationally-educated worker without the liberal arts component is similar to a machine of a work animal, economically productive, but limited. A college-educated individual without the vocational component is similar to an older dependent child, intellectual, but limited as well. A fully functional citizen needs both a liberal arts education and a vocational education. 

The fortunate reality is that America can afford to provide both types of education to all of its citizens. It has not done so thus far because too many of America’s leaders have been too short-sighted or have preferred to perpetuate a two-tiered system, one at the top for the preferred leaders and managers and one for less favored workers at the bottom. Not only is it time out for that kind of thinking but there never should have been a time for that kind of behavior. 

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OPINION: Liberal arts education and vocational education; Citizens need both and society can afford both

By Dr. Ivory Phillips
July 24, 2023