Both/And

My first op-ed at The Hill was published on Saturday. It’s on the importance of policies that support work-based learning for high school students. Internships in high school were a very important part of my education, as were a number of the paid jobs that I had.

In my research on career and technical education, I’ve been coming up against this idea that academics and vocational education are two separate worlds, two separate paths. Certainly from the policy and funding perspective, we treat them differently.

Usually, the way this is framed — and certainly the way I framed it in this piece — is that students who pursue a CTE pathway are not losing out on academics or the opportunities that an academic pathway can offer. In other words, we’ve oversold “college for all.”

In fact, I’d go so far as to say that the mantra should be “CTE for all.”

Kids who are interested in academics should be encouraged to learn a skill or a trade. I think this is where liberal arts colleges can find a way to survive and thrive in the 21st century. I’ve been noodling on this concept for a while, then a tweet from Nassim Nicholas Taleb perfectly crystalized it for me:

Liberal arts colleges that can deliver excellent, rigorous, real academic instruction as well as find ways to advise and encourage their students to graduate with certifications in more practical areas may find that there are significant benefits for the employability of their alumni.

This could be accomplished through partnerships with coding academies, employers, online schools. There are likely countless other mutually beneficial arrangements.

BUT, that’s not really where the true value of a liberal arts education combined with a trade-focused apprenticeship would lie.

It would arise from the combination — or cross-pollination — of multiple disciplines and modes of seeing the world, the creative collisions of concepts within the minds of individual students. This is where the unexpected insights to solve real-world problems will emerge.

Cognitive science is providing good reason to believe that developing multiple specialized domains is one of the key ways that our brains can come up with the most creative and surprising leaps. I think the debate about CTE vs. academics has been drastically underinformed on the developments in cognitive science. I think this is where I’d like to concentrate my research over the next few months.

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