Is Job Training the Purpose of Higher Education?
Two schools of thought exist when educators are asked, "What is the purpose of higher education?" One answer turns the university into four years of job training; educators should pass down general tools, and worry about jobs for students. The other answer holds higher education up as the realm of personal enrichment—the creator of good citizens and critical thinkers that every business should want.
For the personal enrichers, the simple understanding of a tool limits a student’s potential to the short term. What happens if the relevant skill set changes? A student's education becomes irrelevant. And to what position can the new employee advance? With limited critical thinking skills, the business will have to send an employee back to school for more job training. A skilled accountant, for instance, might be lost when asked to evaluate the risk of an investment; balancing a budget is fine, developing a hypothesis is a bit harder.
Does that mean the critical thinking route is correct? No. While reasoning skills are helpful at work, they require background knowledge of a relevant tool to function properly. Consider the accountant’s situation above if reversed. A different accountant might understand the relevant factors that enter into calculating risk, but not knowing where the information is located or how it fits into the company’s budget makes the calculation pointless.
If neither answer is by itself sufficient, what about the combination of both higher education job training and personal enrichment? Perhaps that is asking too much; engineers often have a difficult time with philosophy classes. But were educators to focus on teaching the use of a tool, plus the reasoning behind why it’s used and how it could refer to new information, they would offer such a combination. This extended lesson shows a student what counts as a reason, and how to interpret the world around them through the concepts learned. Educators would teach not only skills, but also how to think.
This combination is not a wild suggestion; even theoretical physicists don’t just use the tools of their trade, they have to make inferential guesses in order to start working. Even better, the combination of relevant business skills with critical thinking provides businesses the worker they really want.
In the end, maybe it’s up to the students to give a final answer depending on why they went continued their education in the first place. Or, more importantly, it’s how they stuck with it, what they learned, and how they plan to use it after they graduate. Wouldn’t that define the purpose of higher education for every person who pursues it?