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.

Schools of Trade-offs

There have been predictions that the higher education bubble will burst for at least a decade now — I remember really awakening to the issue because of some excellent writing on the subject by George Leef back in 2008-2009.

The problems are multifarious but many critiques start with the unsustainable amount of college loan debt that U.S. students have taken on ($1.5 trillion, second only to the amount of mortgage debt), but I think the issue is in the way we talk about it is the real root of the issue.

Teachers and schools and parents tell students about the famous wage benefit of the B.A. or B.S. They hear ad nauseum that successful people have college degrees, and popular culture sends a similar, reinforcing signals that the only meaningful rite of passage to adulthood is a four-year-long residential college or university experience.

Higher education used to be a niche product. Thank goodness there is now broad access to this option. But we don’t have to go so far in the other direction to use as a measuring stick for success “college for all.”

It is naive to expect higher education to meet the needs of the majority of employers or even for society’s need for entrepreneurs. But by telling students that their worth (both self-worth and potential value-add to the economy) are dependent on this one path and giving them “free” money to attend a four-year institution, are we at all surprised that many of them are pretty dissaffected? That many are sympathetic to the idea of “free” college tuition or the blanket forgiveness of student loans? They did what their parents and society told them to do, and many are worse off because of it.

If a student attends college or university because she wants to challenge her mind to learn rigorous academic subjects, taught by serious professors, she ought to have many good options for where she can obtain this kind of education. Instead, the vast majority of higher education institutions are not set up to appeal to these students.

That’s simply because a good number of students choose not to pursue these subjects. As a life-long fan and promoter of the liberal arts, I am fully aware of this fact, and fully comfortable with it.

If the marketplace weren’t weighted the way it is (through the federal student loan system) towards attending four-year colleges/universities, students would have to actually take into account the costs of their educational decisions. This would lead to the closure or reorganization of some higher education institutions. It would also force those that remain to choose what their value proposition is — a rigorous education in the arts and sciences or an equally rigorous training in technical (or applied) subjects.

Each path has its benefits and drawbacks. There is no way for bureaucrats in departments of education or school districts to make this kind of call for each student that they are charged with preparing. The only answer is for each student to make these kinds of trade-offs for himself, and the only way for him to make this decision with skin-in-the-game is for him to be able to see and (to the extent possible) bear the full costs and benefits of each path.

I think in the end that reframing the conversation we have about post-secondary education is the first step. A few proposals:

  • Raise awareness among teachers, school leaders, and parents that the rhetoric that they use to describe post-secondary options is extremely important. Panning technical school or setting up expectations that the “best” outcome is attending a four-year college can be very easy positions for college-educated adults to slip into conversation. But students internalize these kinds of signals.
  • More specialized high schools. Choice policies can support this goal, and if students attend schools that actually value their interests or pursuits, they are more likely to be successful.
  • Make it a little harder to get into college debt. Not impossible, just harder. College debt is particularly pernicious in cases where a student doesn’t even emerge with a degree, so policies that make this burden less likely may be worthwhile.
  • Online education options are better and better all the time. Let’s consider what this may mean for students getting high quality, lower cost courses in high school and beyond.
  • HR departments at major employers can reconsider using the B.A. or B.S. as a screening mechanism for hiring.
  • Support systems, like the Texas State Technical College, that get an amazing ROI for their graduates in terms of employment in middle-skills jobs. This system is an example of how public dollars can be spent efficiently to meet workforce needs of employers while also benefitting students with widely recognized (as opposed to proprietary) credentials.

I’m glad I was able to begin a liberal arts education as an undergraduate. I want serious liberal arts pursuits to flourish, but we will continue to see these subjects founder as long as they are forced to compete in a zero-sum game against “liberal arts lite” — disciplines that are specifically designed to appeal to students with weaker academic preparation or interest.

We will continue to see widespread disaffection as well as long-term economic repercussions as long as students (influenced both by policy and cultural expectations) use time and resources on majors that give them neither a real grounding in traditional arts or science disciplines nor the mastery of any technical domain.

It’s time to stop talking down the kinds of preparation that can enable people to live meaningful and rewarding lives. It’s time to stop communicating, implicitly and explicitly, that gaining a technical certification is somehow a less than optimal outcome for any given student.

It is possible in one life to gain both a liberal arts education and to gain technical proficiency in, say, coding. It obviously doesn’t have to be a binary choice for an individual, but it does seem clear that relying on a single delivery system (four-year colleges/universities) to provide both is simply not reasonable, and isn’t the approach we take in other areas of significant investment in our lives.

Disaggregating the sources from which we get various learning will only make the providers of these options better, lower the costs, and multiply our choices. It will also give education providers an ability to specialize and professionalize in ways that they haven’t been able to before.

The Work of the Mind

2018 was the year of the Stoic Journal. I benefited greatly from the bite-sized but profound selections from Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, and Epictetus and from the daily prompts to write something of my own reflections on them. Not coincidentally, I think 2018 was also the year that taught me how much I need more discipline in the management of my emotions. Sometimes you only learn that the hard way.

This year I’m going a bit deeper by reading the companion volume, The Daily Stoic, as well as supplementing with additional readings from Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius. Today’s passage prompted a few thoughts on the sequence of the seven exercises that Epictetus posits as the “proper work of the mind:” choice, refusal, repulsion, preparation, purpose, and assent.

I think that the order of these exercises is important. Making choices is the first thing we have to do. Choice and refusal are two sides of the same mental action, and (at least in the English translation) they both seem to be cognitive functions.

Yearning and repulsion are a pair as well, but these fall more into the realm of the moral “tastes” as described in Jonathan Haidt’s indispensible The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. Disgust is one of the six pre-rational moral dimensions, and its opposite would be attraction.

Preparation and purpose seem again to fall into the realm of cognitive functions. We normally think of purpose as necessarily preceding preparation (at least that’s what most self-help gurus teach). But what if it’s not? More on that below.

Assent – how exactly is this different than choice? Faithful readers will not be shocked that I suggest we turn to the original language for some insights.

The verb translated above as “to choose” is ὁρμᾶν. Its meaning is closer to stir up, set in motion, or simply, start. The word choice in English implies a weighing of options, pro and con. But that’s not what the Greek suggests.

Which gets us to how this might be different than “assent.” The verb in Greek is συνκατατίθημι, to set down together or at the same time with. It’s used to describe voting the same way as someone else or entirely agreeing with someone else. Assent is an extended meaning, and in the passage there is no suggestion of someone else with whom we may agree.

We assume that the order of our actions looks like this: deliberate choice of purpose, careful planning of tactics, execution of tactics, success.

I think Epictetus is suggesting something very different. We have a pre-rational impulse, whether for or against a particular object (ὁρμᾶν / ἀφορμᾶν), which then sets into motion a feeling of either disgust or yearning, which in turn leads to us preparing for our end, which is only really clear to us after we’ve made the preparations, and then finally, we actively vote for this purpose (which was already set in motion by our pre-rational consciousness) with our rational faculty.

What is far more important than thinking we can plan our lives or even our short/medium/long term goals is training that part of ourselves that is really in charge — the source of our impulses and yearnings.

Epictetus says that only corrupt κρίματα (“decisions”) can pollute the mind. κρίμα is explicitly a word used of weighing and judging in Greek. The seven works of the mind add up to κρίματα.

Corrupt κρίματα happen when somewhere in that chain of impulses and mental activity there is a flaw. If our first impulse is bad that can lead us to assent to a wrong action. If we are not repulsed by a bad idea, that can also lead to a bad outcome. In other words, all along the way, we have to be aware that our judgement is subject to corruption.

In the new year I want to work on finding ways to become more conscious of each of these steps in the process of forming judgements. This includes becoming more aware of the moral dimensions that motivate me, as well as more empathetic to those those that motivate others.

Trial by Fire

In August, 1997 I arrived at college with a lot of curiosity but without a lot of direction.  I knew that I wanted to study history.  As an avid numismatist with a specific interest in ancient coins, I wanted to know enough Latin to read inscriptions with facility.

Reverse of silver denarius, struck by Marcus Antonius in 42 B.C. to celebrate the assassination of Julius Caesar on the Ides of March, 44 B.C.

So far, so nerdy.  I enrolled in Latin with the vague idea that archaeologists of classical sites needed to know Latin, and that maybe that would be my path.

I found that Latin was really hard, at least for me.  This had a lot to do with the fact that I lacked study skills and was pretty bad at managing my time.  Throw into the mix that on the afternoon my sweet family was moving me into the dorm, there was a fire.  My poor parents had to drive all the way home from Michigan to Texas knowing that I would be spending a good part of my first semester in temporary housing.  

It was a fun but chaotic first few weeks.  It felt like summer camp with some classes thrown in.  Not exactly the best conditions for developing strong habits, but I don’t blame the fire.  Other girls in my situation didn’t struggle as badly — the far more likely culprit was my lack of discipline.

To struggle academically was a new thing for me.  I was homeschooled, and while I had taken community college classes, co-op classes, and a variety of correspondence graded courses, I really hadn’t had to try very hard.  I read voraciously, listened to BBC Radio 4, tinkered, and generally spent a lot of time pursuing my interests (see above, numismatics).

There is much to recommend homeschooling, but I will say that there is one big potential downside — it can incentivize not sticking with subjects that are worthwhile but difficult.  I think the wide availability of online courses and diffusion of hybrid homeschooling programs, like Classical Conversations, has largely mitigated this risk.  

Furthermore, my difficulties in Latin really didn’t relate to how much I wanted to learn it.  I truly enjoyed the subject and the classes.  

But enjoying and wanting to learn weren’t enough.  I wasn’t doing the work.  I was still dabbling.

Latin required a sort of precision that I simply hadn’t had to master before.  But I realized that if I wanted to learn the language, I’d have to put in the work.  It wasn’t impossible, but it would be hard.

Over Christmas Break, in between shifts working as a waitress at a local Chinese restaurant, I (finally) made and studied flashcards for vocabulary and grammatical forms.  I went back and looked at the quizzes and tests I’d flubbed and corrected my errors.

That was a pivotal four-ish weeks of my life.  When I returned for the Spring term, my grades dramatically improved, not just in Latin but in my other subjects.

Why?  I think it was because I realized that while professors could give grades and assignments, I was the owner of my education.  Only I could decide what and how to alter my long-term memory.  They could (and did) inspire, encourage, and correct, but only I could sit down and do the work.

I found that, once I put the time in, Latin became fun — so much fun that I decided to take Greek the following fall.  The rest, as they say, is history.  

I credit that Latin class and the faculty of the Hillsdale Classics Department, especially Professor Joe Garnjobst, with helping me to take a critical step forward in my maturity as a human being.  It was only the beginning, but as I learned there, initium dimidium facti.

My hope is that we who have a role in education, whether as parents, teachers, tutors, or school leaders, will remember that what we are doing is formation.  We are helping other human beings accomplish not just higher levels of knowledge of the world, but ideally, a better understanding of themselves in the world.

We don’t really know what we’re capable of until we bump up against challenges.  May we take our jobs so seriously that we only remove the obstacles that a child truly can’t move, and leave in place the ones that only seem insurmountable.