A Modern Vocational Curriculum

When I wrote Starry Eyes and Starry Skies a few weeks back, I made the argument that adequate vocational training for just about every financial services job I could think of would take several months (at most). A few readers asked me why I didn't think that a longer, more in-depth liberal arts education had value. They clearly didn't read the piece.

Still, it's worthy of an answer: I do think it has value. But its value is caught up in the conflicted mess of the three products being sold by American universities: mind-expanding liberal education, vocational training and credibility signaling. We do no service to those whose jobs will ultimately never require them to use even the most modest insights or critical thinking gained from detailed study of Dostoevsky by forcing them to do so for four or more years. We likewise do no service to those who would learn for learning's sake and yet subject them to four years of watered down classes that have to justify their value in some vocational or competitive signaling sense against other departments or institutions.

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  1. Interesting selection. You might be interested to know that something very similar (https://lambdaschool.com/) already exists. I have no association with them, other than working with some graduates and recommending people send their kids there as opposed to University. There are a couple of changes:

    1. Students pay no tuition until the graduate and get a job that pays $50K plus/year.
    2. The annual amount they pay is charged as a percentage of their salary and is capped both in what’s paid in a year (I think around $17K) and in total (I think its around $30).
    3. There is testing to get in.
    4. It is based around software engineering.
    5. The program takes 9 months to complete.
    6. Lambda school is incentivized to get the students jobs, though there is more demand for graduates than there are graduates.

    I can attest that their graduates are excellent.

  2. Does this mean Delta House gets off double secret probation?

  3. I previously taught economics, statistics and related courses at a R1 university, at both the undergraduate and graduate level. When I reflect on the experience, I feel guilt at how pointless it all was, in pretty much every respect. The objective wasn’t to develop better people, citizens or professionals, so it’s no surprise that didn’t happen. Rather, the only person who really benefited from the whole exercise was me, as teaching that content was a necessary step in my academic career. The students were fodder for a tenure application.

    As an entrepreneur, I’ve hired recent graduates into technical and semi-technical roles. On average, the skills they’ve developed as university students don’t add value in the short run. As a result, they get paid a lot less than they would be paid otherwise. Certainly it’s not a new dynamic for new hires to learn, create value and earn pay raises over time. Yet in a world in which students incur significant debt to study at universities, it’s acerbic that curricula undermine their ability to add value, and thus pay off the debt.

    This “what’s your curriculum?” is a fun exercise, and as a parent, I guess it’s useful to think about how to advise high-school-aged kids on their next steps. Yet from a societal point of view, it feels quixotic to challenge the status quo in higher education. I don’t see any mechanism to disrupt it. If someone does, then please don’t keep that insight to yourself.

  4. I’m all for everyone working in the food service industry, but not at places like the picture above portrays. I bet the cops haven’t been called to that place even once in the last six months over a “disturbance” - and that is the experience you need: working with people that are disturbed.

  5. I believe the spirit of the idea here is absolutely correct and overdue. This is the future direction we need to take education in…
    I’ll more comments over time but here is one from the comics I found cool :

    Bruce Wayne – in his quest to develop abilities beyond the normal man he is– goes to different universities and academies and all kinds of strange esoteric fighting schools – to learn what he needs to become the Batman….he never stuck around to get a diploma or a degree in any one place….

  6. I’ll add an anecdote from my earlier years……I knew a Burmese family that was rather wealthy – the men told me that as part of their social education, they had to spend one month as Buddhist monks , and beg for food on the streets every day . Regardless of the fact that they lived in big houses with multiple servants or that their parents drove expensive European cars.
    The idea – to teach them humility ……
    Of course, they cheated by asking friends and relatives to give them food every day but I thought the original concept – humility – was a good one.

  7. Yes, Lambda school has done some interesting things, although as with our own little thought experiment, we still think Clear Eyes means recognizing the power of the signal retained by so-called elite universities. It is an up-hill battle, although perhaps worth it.

    More to the point, though, Lambda is far more specialized as a computer science program. Different question, similar answer in terms of how long pure vocational training should take. Still, I think there are skills missing from their program that ARE critical, even for programmers.

    1. I disagree. Marketing, sales, finance and administration jobs account for a solid majority of positions in almost every service industry.
    2. You are making the argument I start the piece observing: that liberal arts education has value. Yes, it does. For reasons I go into detail on in my prior piece and summarize in this one, I simply think it should be thought of and pursued separately from vocational education.
    3. That book list is marvelous. If you’re looking for agreement that everyone who can should read as many of those books as they can get their hands on, you have it. But that’s a different question.
  8. I could not agree more with the value of those more esoteric ideas. What I struggle with is the extent to which we can really systematize lessons which require us to internalize and experience the underlying philosophy in order to grasp. Humility is a powerful lesson - far more powerful than any of the classes I’ve outlined - but it is an experiential lesson given to us by life, circumstance and chance. It cannot be made synthetically any more than grace, mercy, compassion, patience or goodness can be.

    It is an idea which I think creates many of the inefficiencies of our post-secondary system: that if we consider some trait to be important in adults, citizens and workers, we must signal our belief in its importance by teaching it through some sort of formal pedagogy, even if formally teaching it is the last way that it can be learned. Most of the liberally enriching coursework, or ethics classes, or charity project-oriented classes are meant to do exactly that kind of thing, even though the groundwork for the ethical professional was laid and grouted over the two decades prior and unlikely to be changed by a group project or two at age 20.

    Still, a Bruce Wayne-like focus on skill and trait-acquisition would be better for us all, I think, without the overwhelming power of credential-signaling. And there is value, I think, for each of us to think about the question and even to pursue those things ourselves, to some extent. At the cultural level, however, it’s the demand side that has to change. Employers have to be willing to invest in traits other than sheepskin traits, and those of us who have the power to determine those policies have to be willing to take the risks to move us in that direction.

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