Vocational Education and The Good

By September 9, 2008Education and Training

Had the pleasure of attending a lecture last evening at the American Enterprise Institute by Charles Murray, author of “Real Education: Four Simple Truths for Bringing America’s Schools Back to Reality.” From the NAM’s perspective, this is “truth” that bears attention:

Too many people are going to college. Almost everyone should get training beyond high school, but the number of students who want, need, or can profit from four years of residential education at the college level is a fraction of the number of young people who are struggling to get a degree. We have set up a standard known as the BA, stripped it of its traditional content, and made it an artificial job qualification. Then we stigmatize everyone who doesn’t get one. For most of America’s young people, today’s college system is a punishing anachronism.

Murray’s prescriptions for change include a system of certifications, i.e., rigorous apprenticeships and tests that reflect knowledge and ability in areas where students will make their livelihoods. Use the CPA Exams as a model. These arguments are very close to what the Manufacturing Institute and the NAM say about effective education for succeeding in the modern, global economy. (Murray’s recent column in the Wall Street Journal summarizes this portion of his lecture.)

Always before when making this case, we’ve talked in economic or financial terms: “You can make more money as a skilled manufacturing worker through community college courses and on-the-job training than spending all that money on a four-year degree.” That’s true. But as arguments go, it’s intellectual, calculating and not very satisfying.

Murray also argues on the basis of the good, i.e., of the personal satisfaction gained in achieving one’s best. Yes, for a student with a certain set of abilities — small motor skills, spatial reasoning — becoming an electrician rather than a midlevel white-collar manager means not just a higher income. But becoming a top-notch electrician instead of a mediocre manager also means more personal fulfillment.  Testing your personal limits in areas where you do well is satisfying.

Afterward, we asked Murray about this point and he said that the importance of income is overrated. You often hear, he said, of the titan of Wall Street or some other high-flying success left dissatisfied, frustrated, asking, “Is that all there is?”

Which leads into Murray’s discussion of virtue and the good, and which made us wish we had done the assigned reading of Aristotle back in college.

P.S. Audio and video from Murray’s presentation has been posted here.

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