Academia was built by and for academics

A genuine commitment to [an] inclusive society requires a willingness to shape institutions to that end, even when doing so is for the benefit of others or when it creates tension with other values – Oren Cass

As a conservative who’s written extensively on diversity, I appreciated Cass’s emphasis on creating an inclusive society. In higher education, diversity and inclusion understandably focuses race, gender, sexual identity, etc. It’s common to hear phrases like: “An institution built by and for white, cis-gendered males has to be redesigned if we want it to be welcoming to women, minorities, etc.”

Although I may quibble with how diversity programs are implemented (intellectual and viewpoint diversity should be a bigger component), in general I sympathize with those arguments. I’m married to a professor of engineering, and so I appreciate how corrosive sexism in academia can be.

But at least with gender, many administrators recognize changes need to be made and have some ideas on what to do. Not so with Cass’s “other half”–students who might be better off on a vocational track. They are rarely, if ever, included in diversity dialogues. Unfortunately, they probably won’t be anytime soon.

For all the changes in higher education over the centuries, it still has the same basic premise: the only way students learn is for a professor to teach them in a classroom setting. I call it the academic approach to learning.

Sure now we may have the occasional project-based course, and many professors also do try to use practical case studies in their teaching. And some majors may require a few semesters of work to graduate.  But all of these examples still exist within the paradigm that learning primarily occurs in a classroom. Even majors like engineering or accounting rely on the academic approach.

This approach, needless to say, works best for those who enjoy formal learning, advancing scholarship, and pursuing knowledge for its own sake: i.e., academics. More than a particular race, gender, or sexual orientation, academia was designed by and for academics. The neglect of non-academics is the major inclusivity deficit colleges face.

But meaningfully changing this property would negate colleges’ reason for being and undermine their own existence. If learning can meaningfully happen outside a classroom, then why would we need colleges?

Which is why higher higher education will never be able to truly welcome vocational students. They almost always need the opposite of what colleges offer–practical experience rather than academic knowledge. Institutions that catered to them wouldn’t look anything like higher education as we know it.

Even stronger, institutions that catered to students who just want a job wouldn’t look anything like higher education as we know it. It’s not just vocational students who are short-changed by the academic approach to learning. The overwhelming majority of students who simply want to work are poorly served by this model.

Which brings me back to the idea of a working, rather than just vocational, track. Almost all students need practical experience over academic knowledge. That’s what we need to be pushing. My next few blog posts will go into a few concrete examples of how the academic approach fails students even in engineering and business.

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