The cult of higher vocation

A rising culture of anti-intellectualism seems counterintuitive to the increasing numbers of students enrolling in college each year. Strangely enough, the rise of anti-intellectualism manifests itself in attitudes within and towards universities. Higher education is being vocationalized—as institutions of higher learning come to resemble businesses they become a streamline to the work force. This shift is idealized as a more effective post-secondary “education,” but in reality it harms students, faculty and businesses.

Since the mid-1900s, state funding and rising tuition costs have forced universities to focus their spending on endeavors to attract and keep students. Lavish facilities and sports teams take precedence over libraries and academic programs. All the while, college becomes increasingly unaffordable.

As a result, students—the consumers—are demanding that college be a streamline to the workforce in the face of rising tuition costs and an unstable job market (hence, the devaluation of the liberal arts). It requires far less imagination to see the practicality of a business, accounting or STEM degree, and that is precisely why vocationalization is wildly attractive.

Perhaps I am just a bitter philosophy major and the fact is that vocational majors are simply superior in that they are more lucrative than something like philosophy or English. But this isn’t necessarily the case.

PayScale College Salary Report shows the entry and mid-career salaries of those with bachelor’s degrees as their highest educational level. While engineering and other specific science majors fare the best, many allegedly “useless” majors like philosophy, English literature, and communication fare better in terms of mid-career salary in comparison to “practical” undergraduate majors like accounting, nursing and business administration. Philosophy and English are even above biology.

This report doesn’t count those who go on to graduate schools––it might be better that it does not. Higher education’s obsession with vocation does more than produce fallacious jokes about the English major serving fries. Between disproportionate funding and the need to attract consumers, adjunct professors bear the financial brunt. According to a 2013 report in The New York Times, 76 percent of college professors are without tenure. Many of these are adjuncts, who are paid by the course, meaning that much of their labor is essentially done for free. The fact that many professors must turn to public assistance reflects a broken system and a widespread devaluation of education.

The adjunct crisis affects students as well. Student feedback often plays a role in career trajectory for professors, especially adjuncts. According to former Duke University professor and creator of Stuart Rojstaczer, professors receive the best ratings for teaching to the test (making it easy to do well) and for entertaining students. Actual learning was not a factor, but the customer is always right.

Grades are a factor in the streamline to the workforce, giving students a sense of entitlement to good grades. The fetish of college as an extravagant vocational facility means that students are not receiving the best education possible, to no fault of professors whose livelihood depends on their positive ratings.

The cult of vocation forces universities to heed to the almighty dollar and so too faculty and students. Ironically, the National Association of Colleges and Employers did a study showing that the surveyed employers most value analytical and communication skills found in a liberal arts education.

This is not to disparage any choice of major, but rather the surrounding rhetoric which feeds into a problem beginning at the state level––a problem which largely benefits the state insofar as it creates a productive and utilitarian workforce.

If you ask me, the purpose of a liberal arts degree—and of college as a whole—is to develop the fundamental skills required to succeed in the workforce. Moreover, this type of education encourages creativity and innovation alongside universally valuable skills. Industrializing an entire generation will only discourage innovation and it will ultimately be to the chagrin of corporate America.