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22 December 2006

The ascendancy of the illiberal arts

Liberal education, by reputation, is learning for its own
sake. For this discussion I shall take "illiberal" to be
the opposite of liberal. Illiberal education is a means to
an end. Perhaps the distinction can be better expressed by
contrasting "education" with "training" than "liberal" with
"illiberal." I have chosen the latter approach based on
several considerations. My concern about the ascendancy of
illiberal training coincides with my fear and loathing of
the loss of liberal values. Also, some of the pedagogical
ideas I have come to see as illiberal clearly have self-
identified constituencies. These have injected themselves
into public policy debate on education, as such, and
consistently refer to their projects as educational; less
often as training.

So, in the wonderful world of education, what's hot, and
what's not? Are the liberal arts dead? I believe liberal
arts education will endure, but will retreat to its earlier
role in society as an intellectual plaything of the leisure
class. One force driving this retreat is the trend in
college financial aid policy toward fewer grants and more
loans. To borrow, for any purpose, is to place a bet on
one's future earning power. Education paid for with
borrowed money is necessarily a means to economic ends.
Another economic trend eroding the standing of liberal arts
is the de-professionalization of scholars. This de-
professionalization is being accomplished on numerous
fronts simultaneously. A shrinking percentage of faculty
are tenured, and a shrinking percentage of graduate
students are supported, which is to say, have fellowships.
Wayne State University recently ran a radio ad campaign for
a liberal arts master's degree program with professional
adults as its stated intended applicant pool. The new
intellectual ethic is; get established first, use resulting
discretionary income, if you wish, to lead the proverbial
examined life. An analogous trend is perhaps visible in
the promotion of retirement strategies by the major
brokerage firms. Today's generation of retirees, they
suggest, is obliterating retirement as we know it by
managing the wealth generated during professional-level
careers for investment in careers with perhaps altruistic
implications, involving such activities as teaching and
mentoring. The new social ethic is that every human
activity requires economic success as a justification.

What does the new illiberal education look like? Liberal
education has always stood alongside vocational education,
but I fear vocational education, like liberal education,
belongs to a more innocent age. The traditional home of
post-secondary vocational education is the trade school.
The trade school is alive and well, and seems to be
enlarging its market share in the education industry. The
trade school segment is certainly marketing its wares
aggressively. Consider the now-famous Universal Technical
Institute, a center of automotive learning. I just sat
through their infomercial, which places heavy emphasis on
their industry relationships. It seems some of the
institute's students will qualify to enter training
programs specific to the dealer networks of Toyota, Ford
and BMW. There is also a program geared specifically to
careers in the NASCAR(tm) racing circuit. I found this all
very intriguing. I wonder: If I were to be accepted into
their prestigious NASCAR(tm) program, would I be violating
some non-disclosure or non-competition agreement by
pursuing a technician career in Indy Racing League?
Hopefully I will find answers to at least some of my
questions about this institute at their website,

Another trade school that has been saturating the local
airwaves is called Their decibel-
enhanced radio spot encourages us to take their online
entrance exam, which is an opportunity to demonstrate that
you have "solid computer skills," this being a pre-
requisite for their Windows XP training program. Next time
I get online I will also visit their website. Hopefully I
won't have to agree to too many things in order to check
out their test and find out what they mean by solid
computer skills.

Trade education has never been learning for its own sake,
but is it still vocational in nature? A vocation is a
calling. Does a calling have a brand name? Trades have
always had trade secrets, but they used to have trade
unions, too. Paid apprenticeships are giving way to paid-
for (usually with borrowed money) training programs.

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