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Transactional learning is not enough

Students need an education that is truly transformative


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Transactional learning is not enough
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In a recent tweet, Education Secretary Miguel Cardona shared his understanding of higher education with his nearly 90,000 followers on Twitter. According to Secretary Cardona,

Every student should have access to an education that aligns with industry demands and evolves to meet the demands of tomorrow’s global workforce.

Let’s break this statement down. Secretary Cardona assumes that two demands should be driving higher education. The first demand comes from industry, though he makes no effort to explain which industry he has in mind. The second demand is that of the global workforce, though he doesn’t clarify where this workforce is found or what sort of work they undertake.

Also, Secretary Cardona implies that the future global workforce is making education demands today, even though it seems reasonable to presume that those being educated today will become tomorrow’s workforce. This puts students in the awkward position of making demands of themselves about future workforce concerns while being educated.

Finally, Secretary Cardona believes that every student should have access to this sort of demand-driven education. It is a universal right. Implied herein is that it is also a universal responsibility of schools to provide this sort of education to all students, regardless of what program of study those students have chosen.

Some may accuse me of picking nits about a tweet. After all, Secretary Cardona isn’t drafting a white paper that speaks holistically about the purpose of higher education in America. Rather, he is simply signaling that the Department of Education under the current presidential administration cares about colleges preparing students for real jobs in the real world. But when we wade through the bureaucratic gobbledygook, we find the Cabinet officer responsible for articulating our federal government’s educational policy prompting a purely transactional vision of education.

The liberal arts educated students to think, communicate, and rightly understand the natural world.

Secretary Cardona seems to suggest that all higher education should adopt a vocational paradigm. As the term is customarily used, vocational education is concerned primarily with preparing students for particular careers, focusing on practical knowledge, skills acquisition, and hands-on learning experiences related to the student’s chosen occupation. This model of education predominates in trade schools and technical colleges and often influences so-called professional programs in four-year colleges such as business and engineering.

Make no mistake—vocational education is an important part of the American educational ecosystem. However, Secretary Cardona’s tweet strongly implies the vocational paradigm should be the only norm in higher education. This view undermines, or at least downplays, the value of an education rooted in the liberal arts. Historically, the liberal arts were distinguished from the servile arts. The liberal arts educated students to think, communicate, and rightly understand the natural world. They were intended to be liberating arts that cultivate a rightly ordered freedom among students. The servile arts—what we today call vocational education—simply prepared an apprentice to learn a particular trade.

Today, the general education requirements at many American schools continue to be rooted in the liberal arts. Courses in English composition, foreign languages, philosophy, history, fine arts, mathematics, and the sciences are intended to promote critical thinking and intelligent communication among all students, regardless of their chosen majors. In Christian schools such as the one where I teach, students also take required courses in biblical and theological studies, which evoke the Christ-centered vision of the liberal arts that characterized education from the Middle Ages well into the modern era. Of course, many students also choose to major in disciplines that are identified with the liberal arts.

Contrary to Secretary Cardona’s statement, a transactional education is not enough. The reality is most Americans will change their careers as many as five times before retirement. A vocational education approach alone may well equip students to thrive in their first job, but it may not prepare them adequately for the job they will have in two decades. The vision is simply too narrow, no matter how aligned with current industry demands or attuned to future developments such an education might be.

To be sure, the ideological left has run roughshod through the academy, doing its best to ruin the liberal arts and every other segment of the college curriculum. Nevertheless, the value of a genuine liberal arts education remains.

At its best, a liberal arts education is never merely transactional but is transformative. It prepares students to think critically, communicate effectively, and engage broadly and thoughtfully with the world around them—regardless of their vocational goals. This is especially true when a liberal arts education is rooted in the biblical worldview and conversant with the Christian intellectual tradition that animated the liberal arts for over a millennium. For this reason, even vocational and professional programs need a grounding in the liberal arts to help prepare students to navigate an increasingly complicated world effectively. Students need to be prepared for a lifetime of work and contribution to society, but they also need a grounding in truth and the world of ideas.


Nathan A. Finn

Nathan A. Finn is professor of faith and culture and directs the Institute for Transformational Leadership at North Greenville University in Tigerville, S.C. He is a research fellow for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission and is senior editor for Integration: A Journal of Faith and Learning. He also serves as teaching pastor at the First Baptist Church of Taylors, S.C.


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