Helping students find their place in the world

Debates about the nature of higher education are often framed by the question of whether vocational elements or liberal arts elements should dominate in the curriculum. This is a mistake.

Human beings generally need to foster their development along four dimensions: They need to prepare themselves for bread-winning work; for civic and political engagement; for creative self-expression and world-making; and for rewarding relationships in spaces of intimacy and leisure. We can't do without the skills, knowledge and understanding that enable us to make a living. But neither can we do without a related set of competencies that help us understand who we are as human beings so that we can make reasonable choices about what, individually and collectively, we should do. How should we direct our creative capacities? What should be our shared political ideals and goals? What are the sources of satisfaction in private relationships?

When we consider education from the perspective of the collective, instead of the individual, and ask whether a citizenry generally is being educated as needed, there often seems to be a mismatch between what people choose to learn and the available jobs. The philosopher Plato seems to have been motivated by a similar frustration. He imagined a utopia ruled by a philosopher-king in which, from birth, everyone would be slotted into a particular occupational group and educated to excel to the highest degree within that occupation. Some would be farmers, some craftsmen and traders, some soldiers, and some political leaders. From a bird's-eye view, the state would know from an individual's birth who should be what.

Here and there we can see policy efforts that, in the name of efficiency, seek to apply to education the kinds of information that can be acquired from a bird's-eye view. For instance, Florida is reshaping its community college curriculum by setting up in particular areas degree programs in vocational specialties that labor demographers identify as undersupplied in that location. There is, of course, nothing wrong with putting real opportunities in front of people. But we don't want to craft an environment where people fail to come to their own understanding of what they should try to do because as a nation we are justifiably trying to increase the efficiency with which we match human capital to the labor market. For this reason, it is necessary to have a liberal arts element infused throughout the curriculum at all levels: in K-12 and community colleges as well as four-year colleges and universities.

Just as we should want to cultivate capacities for self-knowledge (to support vocational choices, among other reasons) we must also recognize that an element of self-knowledge includes being able to see how one's competencies connect to the diversity of methods available for self-support. One needs to understand oneself; one also needs to be able to see the vocational opportunities that are out there.

In our restructured world of work — which has a range of service jobs and knowledge jobs that are not captured by the traditional professions and trades; where people will change areas of specialization multiple times over their working lives — simply seeing the opportunities is hard. To this end, the Mellon Foundation, on whose board I serve, has been supporting the placement of students who have earned Ph.D.s in the humanities — people who have, in other words, committed themselves most fully to an education in the liberal arts — into non-academic jobs. The goal is to help those whose education has tipped more toward the liberal arts acquire the observational attunement necessary to see the range of occupational possibilities.

Human beings are not born complete; we make ourselves over the course of our lives. Science confirms this. For all the power of genetics, from the moment of our birth culture has a huge impact on us, including even on which features of our genetic endowment come to the fore. We most fully realize our potential when we make ourselves — even if most commonly we can do this only with the help of others. Each of us is best positioned to be the expert on ourselves; this is why self-knowledge is so important. This is the reason we each have to find our own way in the world, rather than letting someone — for instance, a philosopher-king — place us once and for all in a particular position.

Our contemporary situation demands that we help our young people find their way by marrying the cultivation of self-knowledge to a worldly capacity to see practical opportunities. This requires a curriculum that unifies liberal arts and vocational elements at all levels.

Allen is the UPS Foundation professor of social science at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J.