Vocationalism in Higher Education: The Triumph of the Education Gospel

Article excerpt

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, a widely circulated Education Gospel has achieved worldwide influence. Communicating the good word about education, the Gospel's essential vision goes something like this: The Knowledge Revolution (or the Information Society, or the Communications Revolution, or the High-Tech revolution) has changed the nature of work, shifting away from occupations rooted in industrial production to occupations associated with knowledge and information. This transformation has both increased the skills required for new occupations and updated the three R's, driving work skills in the direction of "higher-order" skills including communications skills, problem solving, and reasoning--the "skills of the twenty-first century." Obtaining these skills normally requires formal schooling and training past the high-school level so that some college--though not necessarily a baccalaureate degree--will be necessary for the jobs of the future, a position that we and others label "College for All." The pace of change means that individuals are likely to find their specific work skills becoming obsolete. They must keep up with advances in technology and expect to change their employment often as firms and industries compete globally, adopt new technologies and new forms of work organization, and individuals must be able to engage in "life-long" learning. And, because no country wants to lose out in the global marketplace, every country is under pressure to increase its commitments to its educational system. (1)

In American higher education, the Education Gospel has led to a dramatic expansion of access and to a greater emphasis on vocational purposes. As higher education became a mass institution in the last half of the twentieth century, it simultaneously exalted its public purposes--benefits to the nation's economy, protection of the national defense, the creation of new knowledge, and the promise of equality of educational opportunity--and its private benefits in giving individuals access to income and professional status. Increasingly, the latter has come to dominate. Higher education is now the clearest embodiment of the American dream of getting ahead, especially getting ahead through one's own labor (Lazerson, 1998).

In this essay, we show how higher education converted to occupational education--called professional education to distinguish it from lower-level vocational training. The vocationalization process has always had dissenters, those who complain that the dominant focus on vocational goals undermines education's moral, civic, and intellectual purposes, a point of view that we suggest has become marginalized over time. More active forms of dissent, we argue, have come from those concerned about the inequities built into vocationalism, the differentiation of higher education institutions by occupational purposes with inequitably provided resources. A different kind of debate has occurred around what constitutes a genuine professional education, one that is inextricably linked to the vocationalism of formal schooling. We conclude the essay by arguing that vocationalism is now so deeply embedded in American higher education that it cannot be wished away and that reforms need to focus on ways to integrate vocational purposes with broader civic, intellectual, and moral goals.

From Moral to Vocational Purposes

America's colleges and universities did not begin as vocational institutions, at least not in the way we currently use the term. Instead there existed a deeply held conviction that the classical liberal arts were essential to prepare moral, civic, and intellectual public leaders who followed professional careers. (2) Interest in using college for explicitly vocational purposes began to be evident in the early and mid-nineteenth century, with the founding of West Point (1802), Rensellaer Polytechnic (1824), and some agricultural colleges in the 1850s. Passage by the U. …