Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Higher Education is Vocational Education

A colleague of mine who is a faculty member in allied health at a large university said to me that if he had it to do over, he would teach at a community college where they have vocational
education. I was surprised. Not that he wanted to leave a university for a community college but that he that he didn’t realize that higher education is vocational education.
The difference is that for the most part, universities teach some higher level vocational ed.

Universities teach vocational education?

Yes, just ask any student attending a university or four-year college why she is there. The answer invariably is to either “get a job” or “become a botanist, teacher, computer analyst, engineer, poet or some other work-related professional. Even a philosophy or art major is taking the courses to become something – a professor or an artist.

Our students are not at college to “learn” but to get a job and earn. This is not new. The first university, Harvard, was started to teach young men to get a job as ministers. That was their vocational goal. Harvard is still a vocational school but one for future professionals like all other universities.

Students view college education as training for a job. And they are right for all courses except some required courses. The courses in their major all point toward becoming qualified to become something, to get a job in a field. If required courses were not required, students would not take them unless they somehow worked into their career goals. The required courses are an attempt on the part of the institution and faculty to broaden the curriculum and the students but they are just add-ons to a vocational curriculum.

Now, if this argument is not making faculty spitting in rage by now I would be surprised. For the most part, they refuse to see the vocational orientation of what they do. They see themselves as teaching in an institution devoted to learning not jobs. The very idea that a college has vocational bases is wrong and pure heresy to them. They persist in believing students are there to learn and broaden their intellects.  The majority of faculty refuse to see going to college as a means to an end even though they all went to college to get a job as a faculty member in a major field to teach others how to become a professional and get a job. It is the majority, quite often those in softer fields like literature, the social sciences and other required area courses that are most adamant about the university not being job-related.

A very close friend of mine taught classical literature at a graduate program at a university. He would invariably get quite angry when I would bring up the subject of higher ed being vocational. “I don’t teach students so they can get jobs. I teach them to expand their minds” he would say even as he trained graduate students for teaching jobs. He expanded their minds so they could become intellectually qualified to get a job. And the students knew this. Any course they took that was not directly related to that job they wanted was considered worthless and if at all possible, avoided. For example, when the teaching associates at the university I attended for grad school were required to take a course in practical classroom pedagogy to teach, they rebelled as believing this course was a waste of their time.

As a result of these differing views of the very nature and role of the college it can be seen that faculty and students go to two different schools together.  One is a professional training intuition and the other is an academy of learning. Fortunately, the two colleges do come together for the most part in the classroom when the course is within the student’s major. The student is there to be trained and the teacher is there to train them through teaching them and having them learn the material. The students learn the material so they can apply it in their vocational area. The faculty member gets to teach and expand the students’’  knowledge which can make him happy.
It is in the required courses where the two college situation is a significant problem. Students do not see them as leading directly to their vocational goal while the faculty see the courses as intellectually enriching and valuable in their own right. As a result, students rebel against the required courses and that rebellion is too often seen in their not applying themselves very hard to the work of the class. It takes last position behind anything that does relate to the job goals.

This creates real tension and even anger in the faculty who have to believe that what they are teaching is important and cannot accept excuses such as “I had to study for a test in my major so I couldn’t do the homework”.  This is why faculty who teach required courses are most vocal about students “not caring, disengaged, unmotivated, and not college material”. They are teaching at a college in their minds that does not exist in the students’ minds. It is a clear anomie situation.   They see the standards and values breaking down in students and the university and that causes tensions and stress between the faculty and students as well as between faculty and the college itself that let these students who are not prepared or engaged into their classrooms.

They need to understand that there is a real gap between them and their students in how they view and exist in the college. They need to accept that students are there to meet their own goals and get a job. They should understand that anything that does not lead to that goal is considered unimportant and alien to most students.

Yes, there are some who will respond enthusiastically to a required course. They may even be enthused by a literature course for example to become an English major and work to become an English teacher as a result of a required English II course. But then the reality is that the course became part of the student’s vocational goals by defining the goal more clearly and becoming a building block in the goal itself.

So what are we to do about this? First realize that students and faculty are at different universities and need to all be at one. Next, recognize that the student is the one who pays the bills and is the reason for the existence of the college. Without them, there would be no college. Thus, it is for the faculty to move closer to the students’ college and accept the reality that the students are there for a vocational reason and goal. Faculty need to accept that some of the courses they teach will not be seen as fitting into the students’ college and not take umbrage at the students’ indifference to the course.

Moreover, when possible, faculty should make the course fit more closely into the students’ vocational mindset. Make the course materials more relevant when possible. So for example, when I taught composition, I had students write job application letter. I did not assign any literary essays but readings about the world they live in and business-related topics.  
This will not necessarily be possible in all courses. For example, when teaching a world literature course. But if the faculty member recognizes that the students are in the other college, at least the experience may be more predictable and change the expectations of the faculty member to make the experience easier and more satisfying.

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