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Learning as Freedom

[1]IN March, a task force organized by the Council on Foreign Relations tried to reframe the problems of the nation’s public schools as a threat to national security. “Large, undereducated swaths of the population damage the ability of the United States to physically defend itself, protect its secure information, conduct diplomacy, and grow its economy,” it warned, while also referring to students as “human capital.”

While the report [2] focused on K-12 education and called for better college preparedness, its instrumentalist rhetoric has remarkable affinities with that of critics who see higher education as outmoded. Conservative scholars like Charles Murray [3]Richard Vedder [4] and Peter W. Wood [5] ask why people destined for low-paying jobs should bother to pursue their education beyond high school, much less study philosophy, literature and history. The venture capitalist Peter Thiel has offered money to would-be entrepreneurs to quit college and focus on Web-based start-ups instead. Business school professors like Clayton M. Christensen [6] tell us that “disruptive innovation” is causing liberal-arts learning to be “disintermediated” so as to deliver just what the “end user” needs.

From this narrow, instrumentalist perspective, students are consumers buying a customized playlist of knowledge.

This critique may be new, but the call for a more narrowly tailored education — especially for Americans with limited economic prospects — is not. A century ago, organizations as varied as chambers of commerce and labor federations backed plans for a dual system of teaching, wherein some students would be trained for specific occupations, while others would get a broad education allowing them to continue their studies in college. The movement led to the Smith-Hughes Act of 1917, which financed vocational education, initially for jobs in agriculture and then in other industries.

Continue reading in The New York Times [7]