On Saturday I took a day trip to Tuskegee, Alabama to see some of the historical sites dedicated to one of my favorite figures in American history, George Washington Carver. Today the university physically looks almost indistinguishable from any other small, pricey liberal arts college, although its agricultural and veterinary programs would be out of place at the Swarthmores and Williamses of the Northeast. Colleges of its type struggle to attract students these days, as there are often tangible advantages for excellent students to choose cheaper schools (flagship state universities) or expensive ones that are better (Ivy League, etc).
Back in GWC's day, the school distinguished itself not only by necessity due to segregation but also in its approach to a complete education. The students did and learned a lot of things that would seem strange and foreign to today's college students: planting fields by hand, making their own clothes, machine shop, cooking, and even building most of the structures on campus by hand. And I really had to laugh at the reaction students (and parents – good god, the parents) would have today if my university announced that everyone was going to take courses in leather tanning and then pitch in down at the construction site for the new dorms.
Before I go on, I want to be clear that I am generally critical of the "more vocational training is the answer" argument in American education. The job market for plumbers and electricians blows just as much as for lawyers and professors at the moment. The argument that such jobs are resistant to outsourcing is also dubious since they are so much less resistant to becoming obsolete. For example, pre-wired wall panels are rapidly eliminating the need for electricians in residential and commercial construction. So if you are feeling the urge to rush to the comments to tell us how "More of these kids should be in tech school," no. That is, not unless you can explain the value in training people for jobs that don't or won't exist.
With that caveat and another about the danger in romanticizing history, the experience made me more reflective than usual about our mission in today's colleges and universities. There is no doubt that in terms of skills, we are better off teaching students physics, math, and writing skills than glass blowing, food preparation, or Field Hoeing 101. But people like Carver and Booker T. Washington believed that the manual work in the curriculum had benefits beyond teaching practical skills. They believed it taught character and made the students better people.
It sounds sappy, right? It is. It also sounds to me like a pretty damn good idea sometimes. Making shoes or planting a field might actually knock some of these students down a peg, and many of the ones I've encountered need that a lot more than they need the stuff they learn in classrooms. The kids I see are largely products of the suburbs. If they want something, they buy it. If something breaks, they pay someone else to fix it. Many of them are accused (with varying degrees of justification) of having an inflated sense of their own talent and importance. It wouldn't be the worst thing for a lot of them to have to learn how to sew or fix appliances. The message is useful: Even though you can afford to pay someone to do this for you, you're not too good for this work. It is not beneath you. You are not above it.
I can tell you that would have done me some good as an 18 year old. College students are and always have been a class of people that consider themselves to be above a lot of things. It will never actually happen, obviously, but we might be doing them a service by making them do practical and manual work. When students say, "I'm never going to need to know (literature, math, etc.) so why should I have to learn it?", we have an answer at the ready. I don't see why the same answer does not apply to learning how to farm or make clothes. The fact that you won't need to do it does not imply that there is no value in learning how to do it.
It's not an idea I've developed very extensively, but our goal in higher ed is to turn boys and girls of limited worldview into men and women ready to participate in and contribute to the world around them. Rather than always looking ahead to the next pedagogical fad, maybe there is some value to looking to the past as well.
This post was somewhat misleadingly titled, yes?