President’s Blog – Higher Education Matters:

Thoughts from Southern Vermont College President Karen Gross

Archive for August, 2010

Not all Vocational Majors are Antithetic to the Liberal Arts

Monday, August 2nd, 2010 by Karen Gross

In a recent piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus, co-authors of the new book Higher Education? How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids and What We Can Do About It, are deeply critical of “vocational” majors.  

These authors comment on the need for colleges to produce “more thoughtful and interesting people.”  Then comes the old saw: they believe “impractical studies” (I gather this is a synonym for the traditional liberal arts) are a better investment as these disciplines alone foster imagination and “stretch … intellect.”

I agree that we want individuals with the described traits.  Where I differ from these authors is the pathway for acquiring these qualities.  I lead an institution with many “vocational” majors: nursing, radiologic technology, business and criminal justice, and I would not want to be graduating, nor do I believe we graduate, individuals who are deficient in the quality of their thinking, their capacity to be creative and their intellectual engagement.

Think about it. Who wants to employ a nurse that cannot think well and boldly in a crisis? Who wants to send a police officer into the field who cannot quickly assess and employ ways to de-escalate a bad situation? Who wants new businesses that merely re-create buggy whips?

It is time to stop bashing the vocations as lesser disciplines.  Critical thinkers, creative problem solvers and engaged citizens can and should be produced across the academy – in the “impractical” studies as well as the practical studies. How we make that happen within higher education is the question of the moment.  Nurturing quality professors and effective pedagogy is what matters, and if we have both, then the discipline is irrelevant.

Conversations on how we can improve teaching and teachers would be well-worth having, particularly for those of us interested in educating not only America’s elite but also the many Americans who can and should complete a college education.