By Jim Coleman
The American Federation of Teachers recently released a statement on academic freedom. In the statement, the AFT enumerates what it believes to be the largest threats to academic freedom today. One of the “threats” that caught my attention was “the increasingly vocational focus of higher education.” In my opinion, this is no real threat, but rather an attempt to shroud special interest and rent seeking behavior in the language of the public good, a tactic not uncommon to unions.
According to the AFT, an increasing vocational focus of higher education is a threat to academic freedom because students are increasingly seen as “customers.” As a consequence, universities are more apt to modify the curriculum to suit the demands of students. This, says the AFT, is a very bad thing, because students are no longer obligated by universities to run a gauntlet of general education requirements exposing them to “what is good, bad or beautiful in life.” Instead students, if they choose, may increasingly focus on classes that are relevant to the real-world job market.
I think the special interests at work here are quite clear. An increasingly vocational focus of schools is less a threat to academic freedom and more of a threat to the jobs of marginal faculty members. If students are granted consumer sovereignty, they will choose classes that they perceive to be of high value, the classes which are most likely relevant to their future careers. Consequently, demand for classes that are not relevant will fall as will the incentive for the university to employ faculty who teach those low valued courses. The AFT calls such vocational trends detrimental to academic freedom and invokes the hackneyed argument of saying it will harm the public good, claiming that it is for the good of the students that the trend must be reversed— In reality, it is for the good of their union members that the AFT wants to see the trend change, as faculty who teach obscure or inapplicable courses may soon find themselves out of a job.
Contrary to what the AFT may claim, the truth is that the good of students does lie in an increasingly vocational focus of higher education; and despite what the AFT may think, students are smart and do put a great deal of thought into what classes they take. Left to their own devices and freed from the burden of cumbersome general education requirements, students can effectively choose classes that will benefit them in both the long and short run. My personal experience as a student attests that even when they are not mandated by the university to take general education requirements some business majors will still take philosophy classes and some engineering majors will still take art classes, because they find legitimate value in the classes. So the increasing vocational focus of schools does not spell the death of liberal arts education, it just entails trimming off some dead weight, eliminating the most marginal classes and faculty, and creating a university environment that is more responsive to those it serves, the students—a minor detail the AFT seems to have forgotten. Moreover, with a streamlined curriculum students will be able to graduate in 2-3 years instead of 4-5. From a financial perspective this certainly would be beneficial to students and the public.
Jim Coleman is a research associate at the Center for College Affordability and Productivity and a senior major in both economics and philosophy at Ohio University.