Wisteria and ivy have swallowed the telephone pole that gives power to every house on my block including my own. From out my bedroom window I have watched the vines traverse up the transformer itself, threatening to not just ingest, but digest the entire pole. “It’s just a viney town, what can I do?,” my property manager told me. I called Duke Energy. A man in a beard and a jumpsuit was at my door in fifteen minutes, and we took a walk around the outside of the house. “What are you studying?,” he asked, in between my frantic gestures at the power lines. “Oh, American Studies,” I replied, walking him over to a pecan tree I am also worried about. “Shoot, aren’t we all studying American Studies?” he replied.
He had knocked on my door after I picked back up Michael S. Roth’s Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters, which I bought two weeks ago, not just in Cambridge, but in the dang Harvard Book Store, a choice still a little vexing to me (even more dubious was that in the same visit, I also purchased Cary Nelson’s Will Teach For Food: Academic Labor In Crisis). Roth is concerned with America’s long struggle over vocational vs. liberal education, about which, I will be the first and most chagrined to admit, I knew little. Roth moves fitfully from Jefferson to Addams to James to Dewey, celebrating their celebrations of liberal education. I read half the book on the plane ride back from Boston to Raleigh, and felt gleeful to be reading about my pragmatist American studies heroes instead of talking to the incoming Duke freshman seated next to me. The second half of the book I read after Brian, the helpful vine-yanker employed by Duke Energy, hilariously invalidated my field of study.
Last week I stood up in front of 800 or so incoming graduate students and spoke to them about the importance of professional development–that is, identifying skills they already possess and seeking out experiences to gain skills they do not. I believe in the importance of not just thinking about what career you want, but seeking out the work opportunities to ensure you will be able to gain that career when you’ve graduated. I believe that whether you want to try for the tenure-track, work some middling administrative position in the university, or high-tail it right out of academia, you have to prepare for that future now. While I preached the gospel of professional development to a sea of blank faces, I began thinking about what exactly I was I evangelizing. In all my prattle (it feels like) about skill-building and leadership training, I wonder if my pragmatist heroes would shake my hand and thank me for continuing the good work of liberal education or if they would spit in my face for being a vocationalist.
“If higher education is to be an intellectual and experiential adventure and not a bureaucratic assignment of skill capacity, if it is to prize free inquiry rather than training for ‘the specific vocations to which [students] are destined,’ then we must resist the call to limit access to it or to diminish its scope,” Roth writes in the introduction. I bracketed this text on the plane and put a check mark next to it, as if to suggest that these statements have received my approval. But there I was four days later, exhorting the vocationalization of liberal education. The struggle of liberal vs. vocational training is as old as the country itself, Roth tells us. What’s more is that it has never really been resolved. Jefferson vs. Franklin gave way to DuBois vs. James and, in North Carolina, might now be constituted as GOP budget v. UNC system. He offers a bridge between the two with the concept of practical idealism, which generally in higher education (generally, now), I find more idealistic than practical. Roth translates practical idealism as it relates to higher education into the modern-day, stating that “a liberal education should help us develop the intellectual and moral capacities to imagine a future that is worth striving for, and enhance our ability to create the tools for its realization.”
And yet I believe that too! Which is why singing the praises of professional development in liberal education somehow feels insidious, even though I do believe in and want badly for graduate students to see and understand the opportunities that are open to them after they graduate. And dang, I feel like John Dewey would too! It seems less important to me to outline why liberal education is necessary than to draw the blueprint for how to invite humble vocational training into the alabaster luster of the liberal arts and then likewise, how to make useful the supposed frippery of the liberal arts for “practical” vocational programs. ‘Useful’ seems to be the most influential word in the argument, but also the thing I am most hung up on. I believe in Roth’s gospel: “The experimentation and open-ended inquiry of a broad, pragmatic education helps us think for ourselves, take responsibility for what we do and believe, and be more aware of our desires and aspirations.” With this logic, liberal education is useful in that it teaches us to both doubt and imagine, work hard and create. But where I struggle with this is its opposition to vocational training that apparently does not train students to “understand the world, contribute to it, and to reshape [them]selves far beyond [their] years at the university.”
I suppose I found Brian, the vine-yanker’s words worth remembering because I was already thinking about the usefulness of my liberal education. Have I learned to doubt? To question the prevailing standards of today’s society? What about thinking for myself, taking responsibility for my beliefs and actions, and becoming better acquainted with my own desires, my own hopes? Unequivocally, yes! And yet, why does this have to oppose my attendance at a professionalization conference or support for the state’s community college system? I want to hear and learn more about how vocational and liberal education can not just coexist in separate spheres, but inhabit the same plane, one in which we can celebrate free inquiry and discovery but also practice communication and interviewing skills. Maybe that’s the same utopia where we’re all studying American Studies.