Should We Support Technical Schools or Liberal Arts Schools?

Kelsey Brockett, period 7


Education is a fundamental part of the formation of the person as a whole. Each and every person deserves a quality education in order to further his or her knowledge as a person and to contribute to future career paths. After reading a passage from The Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith and the speech “Colleges Must Reconstruct the Unity of Knowledge” by Vartan Gregorian, I have inferred that these two profound thinkers have opposing views on how we should regard higher education. We will discover later how these men may influence how to approach higher education in today’s society.

The two main approaches to higher education are technical training, where students learn one specific set of skills for a future job, or liberal arts schools, where students are exposed to various skill sets and forms of knowledge in order to piece as much knowledge and information together as possible and become more cultured. Examples of technical training schools include not only beauty schools, culinary schools, automotive and mechanical schools, but also law schools, medical schools, and other specialty programs. There is a plethora of these schools all over the United States, but the majority of schools in the United States are liberal arts-based. This includes state universities and some private universities. As the majority of Ursuline seniors are graduating next year, all of them are attending liberal arts schools. I am planning on attending the University of Oklahoma, a liberal arts school. However, it is possible for some students to concentrate on a specific area of study through a major. For example, an engineering major or a biology major would concentrate wholeheartedly on science classes instead of exposing himself or herself to a grouping of classes within different disciplines.  This could be either beneficial or detrimental to the student’s well-being, depending on which theorist you agree with. The difference between technical schools and liberal arts schools in higher education is that technical schools are skills-based, while liberal arts schools are knowledge-based. One unique example of a liberal arts school is St. John’s College, with campuses in both Annapolis, Maryland and Santa Fe, New Mexico (“Academic Program | The Seminar”). St. John’s is a knowledge-based, liberal arts school, but the students come out essentially with the same major. Through detailed research and study into a large range of topics, the students are educated in all fields; however, each grade level has definitive seminars that invoke questions about multiple classical works and bring in many viewpoints to the classroom, therefore expanding the knowledge of the students greatly. So, is it more beneficial for students to go to liberal arts schools or technical schools today?

Let’s begin the discussion of which view society today should agree with regarding higher education. Adam Smith, author of The Wealth of Nations, describes the ideal division of labor in his famous work, published in 1776 (“Adam Smith”). After reading a selection from The Wealth of Nations, I have found that Smith would highly encourage each worker to learn a step of the productive process for a certain industry, become very familiar with that step, and then combine with other workers and their learned steps to gain the most productivity. In a section of the reading, Smith makes the point that “if [the workers] had all wrought separately and independently, and without any of them having been educated to this peculiar business, they certainly could not each of them have made twenty, perhaps not one pin in a day…” Smith believes in the importance of splitting the work so that one person does one task, and only that task, to have maximum productivity within a business or state. This ideology relates to the philosophies behind the technical schools. By attending a technical school, let’s say National Beauty College in Garland, Texas (“National Beauty College”) for example, the students are focusing their attention simply on one task in order to prepare for or create a career for themselves. When students make the choice to attend a technical school, they are choosing to study one field of knowledge, instead of expanding their horizons and attending a liberal arts school. But does this mean there will be more overall productivity, like Smith seems to believe? Some say yes, some say no, but read on for more.

In countries such as Chile, higher education has been divided into four categories: traditional universities, private universities, professional learning institutes, and private technical institutes (Volpenhein). The first sector, traditional universities, only accepts the highest test scores. These programs are four years and provide a liberal arts education. The next type is private universities, which last four to seven years and give a similar focus to the traditional universities. Professional learning institutes are the third type of higher education in Chile. Students of the professional learning institutes earn professional degrees that are not offered at the traditional and private universities. Finally, there are private technical institutes which are two year programs that offer specific job training skills. Chile has different levels in an attempt to please all kinds of students, which is probably beneficial to their higher educational system. The United States also has both technical and liberal arts schools, but not quite the tiered levels that Chile has. When I was on the school delegation to Chile, I was talking with my host sister and some of her friends about where they would go for college. They explained this process, saying that they must study hard for the test that virtually determines what college they go to. It sounds like quite a stressful process, because their future is based on one testing date.

Vartan Gregorian, a prominent figure in the education field today, feels differently than Adam Smith. Gregorian gave a speech titled “Colleges Must Reconstruct the Unity of Knowledge” and it was transcribed into an edition of The Chronicle of Higher Education (Gregorian). Gregorian stresses the importance of liberal arts and expansion of knowledge through multiple disciplines. He used an example of a 1999 Mellman Group survey where the subjects, or students, said that it was “very important…to find work that will make a positive difference in people’s lives” (Gregorian). Gregorian believes that view has changed drastically from 1999 to today; he feels like the focus has shifted onto skills-training for future careers instead of development of knowledge and being cultured. One of Gregorian’s key principles is that all fields of knowledge must be taught so that all of this newly-learned knowledge will be unified and make the student stronger as a whole. He stated that “higher-education reform must focus on a revival of the liberal arts” (Gregorian), which is contrary to the philosophy behind Smith’s stance. In this day and age, there is so much information sprawled across every medium you can think of: social media, books, websites, magazines, videos, speeches, and many others. Through a liberal arts education, all of this knowledge is compiled into the curriculum. Gregorian believes this is the best way for students to become cultured and informed about society today.

After reading the works of Smith and Gregorian (The Wealth of Nations and “Colleges Must Reconstruct the Unity of Knowledge”, respectively), I have taken a stance on what I believe is the best direction to lead today’s higher education route towards. Though I respect both the men tremendously for their work, I believe that it is more important for students to attend liberal arts colleges as opposed to technical, skills-based schools. If these young, eager college students are exposed to various fields and types of knowledge, they have the opportunity to glue the bits together and progress further than those who are only taught one skill set. By attending a liberal arts school, students are able to pursue any career they please since they have been exposed to many different cultures and forms of knowledge.

Technical schools are appropriate for those who are not willing to jump into a full education, but society in general today should focus on the attendance of liberal arts schools. If we want to be exposed to as much as possible for the best interest of the United States, we should support liberal arts schools. There seems to be no such thing as “too much learning”; one can never be overexposed to cultures, languages, and information about this world. However you want to spin it, knowledge-based liberal arts schools are able to further society better than skills-based technical schools; if we want the most knowledgeable, cutting edge society, we should steer students down the path of liberal arts schools.

Works Cited

“Academic Program | The Seminar.” St. John’s College. N.p., n.d. Web. 25 Apr. 2013.

“Adam Smith.” The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. N.p., n.d. Web. 25 Apr. 2013.

Gregorian, Vartan. Colleges Must Reconstruct the Unity of Knowledge. Rep. N.p., n.d. Web. 25 Apr. 2013.

“National Beauty College.” National Beauty College. N.p., n.d. Web. 25 Apr. 2013.

Volpenhein, Sarah. “Inequality in Chile’s Education System          World Report: The Student Journal for International Affairs.” World Report: The Student Journal for International Affairs. N.p., 2011. Web. 25 Apr. 2013.


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