Why rebranding higher education as “job training” is an offence to humanism

Too many governments seem determined to diminish the type of education that nurtures free and independent thinking.

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The Australian government recently revised its fee schedule for higher education in order to emphasise “job readiness”. Those who choose to study the humanities in Australia must fund their own education; in fields deemed to provide job training, the government has increased its tuition subsidy. In the UK, the Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson, echoed this principle in a recent speech on further education: “We must never forget that the purpose of education is to give people the skills they need to get a good and meaningful job.”

No one opposes offering widespread and high-quality vocational education to teach people how to provide essential services. The basic structure of the common good involves meeting human needs for water, sanitation, power, transport, health and access to the law. Such activities require training, and there is an obvious public interest in providing it. But reducing education to job training is not only a partial or limited view. It is sinister.

The difference between advocating for vocational training and describing all education as “job training” may seem subtle, but is crucial. Terms such as “job training” or “career training” – or as Williamson puts it, “local colleges firmly tapped into local business needs” – appeal to the existing labour market, not the common good. They have taken private profits as their guiding principle, rather than the needs we hold in common. Even when students are trained for prestigious and profitable work, it is strange to think that this kind of training needs public cultivation and support; surely public goods should be the primary object of public endeavour.  

Anyone who doubts that jobs are not all for the common good need not cite dramatic examples of biowarfare engineers. One can simply pick up anthropologist David Graeber’s 2018 book Bullshit Jobs to see the farce that middle-class employment has become. Drawing on extensive correspondence with workers, Graeber describes the high-prestige, high-pay, utterly worthless jobs that our university graduates aim for and are “trained” to take up.  

Some of Graeber’s correspondents judge themselves to be manufacturing demand in order to sell useless products; others are paid not to fix something that needed fixing; and yet others are “box-checkers”, employees who fill out required paperwork that was never read nor reviewed. The letters Graeber receives are soaked with misery; these workers are paid well, respected, and yet deprived of the human need to do work that actually benefits others.

Reading his examples and viewing education as “job-training” evokes the image of universities training seals to perform useless, soul-destroying tricks. This suggests that job training can be pointless or distracting, a waste of time – and perhaps a poor route to one’s own flourishing. But I want to argue that matters are even worse than that. Reducing education to job training threatens basic principles of liberty and equality.  

Anyone who has tried to get a job knows that they are designed by others. In a healthy economy, there might be a great enough variety of “others” to permit mutual discernment in making a job fit a person, as well as the possibility of employees influencing the way jobs are practised. Alternately, in the old mould of craftwork or academia, applying for a job meant applying to enter a guild of equals. To do so, you needed to master the knowledge the guild sought to preserve. Once you are in, no one is master of anyone else.

In this age of global mega-corporations, jobs are designed by a very few people for a great many others. To call education “job training” is, quite simply, to call it “learning how to follow someone else’s orders”. We train people to work for the powers that be, whether those powers are benevolent or not. It is not up to the prospective employees to judge the overall value of their options. Their “job training” will not have included habits of imagination or critical judgement that might assist in evaluating the structure of our work or its role in the broader community.

The black American scholar and activist WEB Du Bois argued against the reduction of education to job training for former slaves and their descendants, and claimed that only classical education could fully restore their stolen dignity. Du Bois describes his own imaginative and critical liberal arts education as an entry into a hall of equals, where he could freely converse with Aristotle or Balzac, past the barriers of racial segregation that sought to diminish him. His words, along with the words of many black American leaders recounting a similar education, remind us that reading, studying, and learning have the power to liberate us from the effects of prejudice and oppression so often built into the structures of work and wealth. 

The liberal arts have an equalising and liberating power precisely because they operate at some remove from existing economic and political structures. Anyone, no matter what their initial place on the social totem pole is, can speak with the greatest minds about fundamental human questions and seek essential truths. In short, the liberal arts foster social equality by offering some of the highest human goods to anyone who is interested in them. 

The liberal arts are also realms of open-ended inquiry and the cultivation of the imagination. Liberal learning assumes individuals to be authors of their destinies, shaping the future by thinking, imagining and choosing, rather than simply fitting into a pre-ordained ladder of achievements. In this sense, liberal arts live up to their etymology in human liberty: they train us to freely reimagine our lives and the communities we live in.

By discouraging the study of the humanities, as well as theoretical maths and science, the Australian government seems set to diminish, if not destroy, the type of education that nurtures the development of good judgement and free and independent thinking. Liberal education – whether in philosophy, literature or theoretical mathematics – develops habits of mind that make for more capable and happier human beings, regardless of their circumstances. Learning may help us to succeed, but liberal learning helps us to ponder, to reflect, and to find our dignity even when we fail or when we face the worst problems. Its value is not reducible to its social uses. 

All the same, it is enormously useful. Liberal education cultivates the mental habits that permit citizens to be equal participants in the design and maintenance of their communities. The value of such education is most evident not from its effect on the ruling class – which will, owing to its ability to pay fees, always have access to the humanities – but in the lives of the oppressed and the belittled.

The historian Jonathan Rose collects numerous first-person accounts of the role that reading books or studying astronomy or other forms of thinking had in the British Labour movement, from the late 18th to the early 20th centuries. He also describes the grass-roots intellectual initiatives that spring up in many countries and contexts, initiated and maintained by people who seek liberation from stultifying social environments or exploitative economic conditions. As Rose shows, these men and women find in books and in their intellectual associations forms of dignity and autonomy denied them by their bosses and by the broader political community.

These working-class readers, along with their counterparts across the Atlantic, testify in their own words that the study of history, philosophy and literature is the very opposite of stepping into someone else’s mould. Rather, such study is a way to break established patterns and to discover authentic ways of being, living, thinking and speaking, sometimes directly counter to those ways in which the rich and powerful direct.

Perhaps the public has forgotten the liberating power of the academic subjects that constitute a liberal education. Perhaps even their teachers and practitioners have lost touch with their deepest functions and possibilities. But suppose we ask innocently, and without predisposition to conspiracy – in whose interest it is that liberal education dies out, or becomes a good to which only a few have access?

The question answers itself. The Australian and UK governments are quite simply serving the rich and the powerful: a group of global corporations, ever dwindling in number and growing in power. Such entities already dominate our economies, and, I fear, much of our politics. Shall they determine what sorts of human beings we are trained to become? 

It is up to us, ordinary citizens as well as academics, to leverage what remaining power we have to say “no!” Nor should we permit profitable enterprises, which by definition can supply their own needs, to take from the common store. Should we fail, we must remember what our forebears in the old Labour parties and in the movements for civil rights did. They spoke, read and wrote by their own lights; they formed organisations for the sort of learning they themselves wanted, they fought relentlessly, and they built communities in the interests of human flourishing. 

Zena Hitz is tutor at St John's College, Annapolis, Maryland and author of Lost in Thought (Princeton).This article is part of the Agora series, a collaboration between the New Statesman and Aaron James Wendland, assistant professor of philosophy at the Higher School of Economics. He tweets @ajwendland

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