When my daddy worked at Dupont in the 60s, he’d often complain about the “college boys” who “didn’t know anything about working in a chemical plant.” Even then, I’d nod sagely and agree without understanding what the hell he was talking about. Didn’t guys who went to college know everything?
Turns out, no, they didn’t. But that was the point.
Before the 1930s, college was mostly reserved for white males, and while schools focused on the sciences, economics, and psychology, most students graduated woefully ignorant of literature and general Western culture, but these students specialized early. World War II exposed this deficiency, as the level of education among college graduates varied widely, making it more difficult to train soldiers for battle and command. Both during and after the war, University of Chicago president Robert M. Hutchins (1899–1977) pushed for a national core curriculum that leaned heavily on liberal arts. The GI bill, while leading to a boom in higher education, also helped cement the concept of a core liberal arts education within major institutions of learning.
As universities and colleges filled to bursting with former soldiers, they squeezed out less qualified students from rural communities, and the backlash led to an improvement in primary and secondary education. Called “Jugheads” by their fellow GIs, over 300,000 soldiers could not read when the war began, but the services worked diligently to improve that, and many of these found themselves with the means and ability to pursue higher education.
Here is what the military understood then that we seem to have forgotten: before you can train someone for a job, their education must be complete and well-rounded. Prior to the 60s (and far beyond for a few schools) universities kept the curriculum and majors limited to give students the time for a grounding in the liberal arts. Students graduated with having read Kant, Nietzsche, Locke and Spinoza, or the stories of Milton, Homer, Voltaire, Dumas and Chaucer. These men and women, having a grounding in a wide range of disciplines, were the easiest to train. And not just train, but train right.
So, my daddy’s lament about “college boys” was misguided. He’d also readily admit without hesitation that those new hires were also the easiest to train, and often advanced rapidly because of their ability to understand even the finest details of the process. But he never made the connection, not having made use of his GI bill for more than a semester or two.
By 1994, however, the concept of a liberal education had fallen out of favor, as industry moguls and business leaders all clamored for more specific training in not only higher education, but secondary public education as well. This culminated in President Clinton’s signing of the School-to-Work Opportunities Act, which called for creating a national system of school-to-work transition programs. While this had the laudable effect of offering both technical and vocational training for those students not predisposed to higher education, it severely undercut and undermined education in the liberal arts—the very thing that made training workers easier and less expensive. And this was unfortunate, because what research showed—and my daddy knew instinctively—is even workers with specialized education still need training.
This is because training and education are not the same. Or, as I once read, “in theory, theory and practice are the same, but in practice they are not.”
The lamentable and totally foreseeable upshot of all this is the current move to strip or downgrade humanities at the secondary and higher education levels in favor of science, technology, engineering, and math—the so-called STEM subjects. Some have attempted to ameliorate this by changing the acronym to STEAM by adding the arts, but I’ve seen no evidence it’s taking hold.
The simple fact is that big business doesn’t want workers who think too deeply; they need workers who will just do their jobs quickly and efficiently, and for the lowest possible cost. Educated workers are anathema to blind obedience and low wages. They also lean toward liberal politicians and policy, and we can’t have that. An uneducated and poor populace is much easier to control. This, as I’ve said before, is a feature, not a bug.
In Part 4, I’ll discuss what we can do to repair the damage and move forward. Until then, think good thoughts…