Imma let you get that training in the trades, but also … get your liberal arts degree!

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This is the new mantra: “Not every kid has to get a college degree. It is a great idea to get training in the trades.” This is wrong. Everyone should get college level liberal arts education, and for most, in the form of a degree. And of course, the trades, variously defined, is a very good place to be. Our society should make the choice to do both the common expectation, and affordable.

To be clear, that “liberal arts degree” might be an AA, a BA, or a BS, depending on your particular situation. And you shouldn’t have to pay for it, or at least, not much. Or it might be something equivalent to a degree, and it might be obtained in any of number of different ways. But for the most part, when educators speak of the “liberal arts” we mean the classes one takes for an associates degree or to meet the distribution requirements for a bachelor’s degree. For some students, a good chunk of this can happen in high school.

This idea that a college education is only for some is a pernicious falsehood. The premises of the statement are largely incorrect, and it is the same kind of civilization ending policy that gave us Trump and McConnell. Maybe not everyone needs a college degree, but in fact, that is the status quo already. About 39% of Americans ever get a four year degree or higher. About 66% get some college. So, the number of Americans (and we are typical of industrialized countries) who get at least a portion of a liberal arts program may be about half, depending on how one counts. So, why are we speaking of “you don’t really need a college degree” like this is a new strategy that is going to save us from something? The truth is, the fact that so many Americans are not more liberal-arts educated than they are is a problem we need to address and fix, not one that we need to exasperate with platitudes.

Anyone can benefit from liberal arts learning. At a societal level, this is how a generation makes that transition from adolescence to thoughtful adults prepared to contribute in this complex world. The mantra in question tells us to separate our youth into two categories. One includes those what will be richly endowed with knowledge and ability sufficient to contribute to our various national conversations, to understand the law, history, civics, science, literature, language, arts, enough to have a meaningfully enhanced appreciation of the world around them. The others might achieve this state of contribution, or not, and if so, achieve it without the same resources and help everyone else gets, because we told them no, this is not for you.

Indeed, people may be excused in this educationally bifurcated future for assuming those in the trades have a lesser grasp of these important things, maybe even a lesser right to contribute to the conversation, a diminished right to be heard and, why not, no real claim to the voting franchise.

(Have you ever had the sense that a person “in the trades” who also has a high level of post secondary education has done something subversive? Well, that feeling is real because the subversion is often real.)

There is a window of time, of two to four years, when a person is both ready and available to engage in this liberal arts project. There is variation in when a student is mature in learning and can thus engage in this kind of education. Ask any experienced high school or intro college teacher. Variation among high school juniors, for example, in how well they do in a particular advanced subject is not explained by their native intelligence, but rather, by their stage of maturity with respect to learning. The high school junior who just does not grasp AP biology might be a biology wiz as a college frosh, and from there, be your next Nobel Prize in Biology recipient. (Oh, and there really needs to be a Nobel prize in biology, by the way.)

That defines the opening of that window: ready to learn in all the ways one normally would be. The closing of the window (and this is of course an oversimplification) comes later, when the individual is beyond the introductory level in their education, working on a major, or graduate work. Or maybe they are starting up a business and are fully occupied with that, unable to be taking two night courses. Or family matters, or some other thing. Very few people are set up to take two or three courses at a time for a couple of years at any arbitrary point in their lives. This tends to happen only during that window, in that age range.

(As an aside: I did not go to college. I got a college degree on my merits, graduated in the top of my class of 10,000 at the University of the State of New York Regents College, then went on to get my MA and PhD. So I’m very highly educated, but not traditionally so. At a later time, I was a principle in a program at the University of Minnesota to support adults who were decidedly past that window of maturity and opportunity, to get their as yet unfinished degree. I served variously on the board of advisers, as a faculty advisor, a student general advisor, and director of admissions. In that capacity I was among a handful of people across the country actively supporting and working in favor of non traditional education. I say this here and now so that you, dear reader, understand that I appreciate non traditional approaches as much as anyone, fully embrace them, and I demand that non traditional approaches be part of any education system.)

For most, this window typically opens any time during the first year of Highs School (rare) and it can run as late as the last year of college (rare). For most people, this two or three year period happens somewhere between the start of the third year in high school and the end of the second year in college, and that is also when the “lower division,” or “liberal arts” courses, in both advanced high school (AP, etc.) and intro college, are most available to everyone.

Go into a trade, fine. Tell your kid into going into a trade, fine. Make sure to tell everyone in ear shot that this is what everyone should do after your careful study of education and society’s professional and avocational needs. Fine! The trades are where many, maybe most, people should be, and this should be a good way to go. And there should be more unionization, and more respect for the people that actually make civilization work.

But going into the trades should not sentence someone to a significantly reduced general education. At present, we don’t sacrifice high school for the trades, though there is a move to do that. What I’m suggesting here is that we embrace the basic liberal arts as part of our paid for and well attended to expectation for most people, regardless of the direction they have chosen, including trades, professional training, a military career, business, or any other thing.

But training in a trade with no liberal arts education produces a high proportion of adults who are not really ready to help us as much as they could in this whole civilization thing, and who effectively then become a burden on our system of government and politics. Thomas Jefferson pointed out that the ability of the people to self govern is closely linked to education. It is generally understood that public opinion is often simply wrong on the facts or easily manipulated by nefarious actors, and it is also understood that these effects are a product of differential education as much as anything else. (There are multiple factors, of course.) An education system that sorts out our children is a burden caused by policy intentionally and intentionally promoted, promulgated to produce a large angry, aka “populist,” middle and working class voting base that for the most part comply with the wishes of those who push for this policy.

Part of this is, of course, keeping college expensive, and using tax based funding to support private colleges that are generally out of reach of regular people. The 1%ers, the 10%ers, and the wanabee-%ers, strategize to make good education (at all levels K through PhD) deferentially available for the rich, mainly through private offerings, and to keep public education inadequate and use as little public money for it as possible.

The “go into a trade, it is the thing to do now” trope is simply more of this, and it is exactly what the Koch Brothers want you to say, think, and embrace.

Everyone deserves the opportunity to get that basic liberal arts education.

A few years ago I was tasked by the University of Minnesota to visit a giant military base where we expected thousands of troops standing down from the front lines in the Middle East to return for redeployment or homecoming. My job was to make contact with soon-to-be veterans or reservists who needed to fill out their education to obtain a BA/BS, certificate, or maybe a Masters.

It turns out that the large number of military personnel expected went to a different base, and only special forces soldiers arrived at my location.

Several had MAs. More commonly, though, they had PhDs or were working on their PhD. Most of the MA-only holders planned some sort of further graduate education, including law. Not a single one had only a bachelors degree or less. Not one.

Guess what folks. The most intense trade of them all may well be that of professional soldier. The top echelon of professional soldiers go way beyond a handful of liberal arts classes. This is not an accident, it is by design. It is also paid for.

Just like Medicare, this is a micro example of a way of doing things that is very very good but that we do not do. But we should.

Go into the trades. Meanwhile, society owes you a BA (or AA or similar). Good for you, good for all of us.

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3 thoughts on “Imma let you get that training in the trades, but also … get your liberal arts degree!

  1. In a country that more often than not turns down a local tax increase of a mill or two for public education, it may be a hard sell to get the public behind funding free collage, especially since even state university tuition amounts to a sizeable hunk of many people’s income and new textbooks are now routinely above $100 and some are in the $500 range.

    It seems that many (most?) Americans are categorically against paying for governmental spending on things that might benefit someone else that they themselves had or have to pay for themselves. It’s perhaps the source of the viewpoint that American poor people aren’t really poor (many have refrigerators and tv) and therefore don’t deserve any help.

    1. Free or cheap associates level classwork, wouldn’t be that expensive. About a fifth of it is already free given current pricing deals. A fifth or more is already handled by HS. It is the least expensive of the college offeringd to produce by a large margin. If the 4 tear budget for college is 200k wholesale price, this is probably 40k per student. That’s within the range of a property tax levy for improving sidewalks.

  2. Back in the ’60s when I was in high school the system funneled students into academic or trade streams. When first starting high school you selected which one you wanted but if you chose academic and didn’t shine at it you were pushed off into trades whether you liked it or not. I chose academic and despite missing almost my entire first year and the last quarter of my graduating year (’67) to illness I was able to stick with academic (I excelled in maths, English, and biology, totally sucked at French and chemistry, and was at best mediocre on the trades side.) It took me 4-5 years after that before I was convinced I should go to university and get a BA (English major)- I’ve never regretted taking that time to mature to the point I could handle university.

    I completely agree with your suggestion that everyone should get liberal arts education, without it you are not likely to have a grasp of the fundamental nature of societies and how they arose, and regardless of whether you are a tradesperson or a scientist without liberal arts training you will be at risk for being easily manipulated by politicians con men of every stripe. I believe a good liberal arts education inculcates skepticism and that’s a good thing as history, philosophy and literature teach you (if you’re paying attention) that plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

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