The entire modern history of higher education in the U.S. is littered with various people– inevitably but not always crediting themselves with liberal intentions– wringing their hands over the difficulties of class mobility. No matter the context, the basic idea is always the same: not everyone wants to go to college, so why should we make them? It’s an appeal to our sacred values of individuality. We are all unique, we should all be the masters of our own destiny.
Chris Meyer’s recent piece in Education Week (The Inadvertent Bigotry of Inappropriate Expectations) has all of the right elements: the liberal credentialing (“As someone who founded and ran a college-prep enrichment program for at-risk secondary school students…”) and the appeal to individuality (…”our schools should … build on students’ interests and help them develop real-world skills that will give them an economic foothold after graduation.”).
Meyers offers a story about a student telling a professor that she would like to be a nurse. “How about a doctor?” the professor asks. Meyers describes the answer as “the haughty disdain with which many educators and policymakers view careers that do not require a bachelor’s or advanced degree.” I am not persuaded. Meyers is coy about the student’s ethnicity and age, to start, but he hints that the student is black: “I will call her Shanika.”
We might imagine other stories. The student might be a young African American women who doesn’t think people as poor as her family can ever become doctors. As any teacher knows, these brief moments of encouragement are often very important moments in a student’s life, even if she doesn’t go on to be a doctor. That’s not what really bothers me about his story. What bothers me is that I wanted the professor to answer in a completely different way.
I think that the story illustrates our lack of courage and imagination. Why can’t a nurse begin her education with an undergraduate degree in music, or philosophy, history, literature, or political science? The liberal arts were designed to be existentially and socially transformative. In theory, once you got your undergraduate degree you could go on to any form of employment– carpenter to professor– and society would reap the benefits. Why think so small?