Class Degrees: Smart Work, Managed Identities, and the Transformation of Higher Education

Class Degrees: Smart Work, Managed Identities, and the Transformation of Higher Education

Class Degrees: Smart Work, Managed Identities, and the Transformation of Higher Education

Class Degrees: Smart Work, Managed Identities, and the Transformation of Higher Education

Synopsis

A current truism holds that the undergraduate degree today is equivalent to the high-school diploma of yesterday. But undergraduates at a research university would probably not recognize themselves in the historical mirror of high-school vocational education. Students in a vast range of institutions are encouraged to look up the educational social scale, whereas earlier vocational education was designed to "cool out" expectations of social advancement by training a working class prepared for massive industrialization.

In Class Degrees, Evan Watkins argues that reforms in vocational education in the 1980s and 1990s can explain a great deal about the changing directions of class formation in the United States, as well as how postsecondary educational institutions are changing.

Responding to a demand for flexibility in job skills and reflecting a consequent aspiration to choice and perpetual job mobility, those reforms aimed to eliminate the separate academic status of vocational education. They transformed it from a "cooling out" to a "heating up" of class expectations. The result has been a culture of hyperindividualism.

The hyperindividual lives in a world permeated with against-all-odds plots, from "beat the odds" of long supermarket checkout lines by using self-checkout and buying FasTrak transponders to beat the odds of traffic jams, to the endless superheroes on film and TV who daily save various sorts of planets and things against all odds.

Of course, a few people can beat the odds only if most other people do not. As choice begins to replace the selling of individual labor at the core of contemporary class formation, the result is a sort of waste labor left behind by the competitive process. Provocatively, Watkins argues that, in the twenty-first century, academic work in the humanities is assuming the management function of reclaiming this waste labor as a motor force for the future.

Excerpt

The current truism suggests that an undergraduate degree is today’s equivalent to a high-school diploma a couple of generations earlier. Undergraduates at a research university would probably not recognize themselves reflected in any historical mirror of high-school vocational education, though, which was a significant source for many of those highschool degrees in the past. Few would even recognize the term “vocational education” as having designated a specific secondary-school track, let alone recognize the derogatory “voc ed” that was used so commonly half a century ago. All kinds of existing cultural pressures teach an enormous range of students to look “up” rather than “down” an educational social scale: at advanced placement (AP) courses in high school, at a prestigious university or professional school down the line, and so on. Obviously, not all students absorb these directional lessons, but it seems clear enough that in educational terms the eyes-up injunction rules the day, arguably in more intense and comprehensive ways than in the very recent past. Educational institutions may seem shaped in direct relation to academic ends or programmatic goals. in the apparently endless competition of the present, however, what is directly above on the escalator always matters, what is directly above is itself defined by the next level, and so on through the process.

Nevertheless, there are good reasons to change this angle of vision. the range and diversity of postsecondary education in the United States today can be better understood in the historical mirror of vocational education than by looking up the educational escalator.

Of course, “getting ahead” has always seemed a part of cultural common sense in this country, and you cannot get ahead unless you look higher than where you are. From Benjamin Franklin through Frederick . . .

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