What is college really for? More thoughts on society and the liberal arts

| July 21, 2010

In his recent book ,” Matthew B. Crawford calls into question the prevailing sentiment that “knowledge work” is somehow more intrinsically valuable than skilled trade labor. Crawford earned a Ph.D in political philosophy from the University of Chicago, and is now a fellow and the institute for advanced studies at the University of Virginia. Just as central to his argument as his academic credentials however is his work as an electrician and motorcycle mechanic. Crawford cites his work as a mechanic as far more intellectually demanding than any “white collar” job he was able to secure with his fancy degrees. A broad (and funny) sketch of his argument can be found in this interview in the Colbert Report.


While not framed as an educational treatise, this little book has a lot to say to those of us thinking about the place of education (especially a liberal arts education) in society. In a recent post I argued that a liberal arts education is one way of educating for critical ethical reflection rather than a universal requirement for the development of those faculties. Crawford’s book was a timely reflection for me on this subject. Rather than engaging in theoretical discussions about the ethical values that different types of education may or may not encourage, Crawford takes the type of work generally available after that education is completed as his point of ethical analysis. Using his experience as a writer of abstracts for scientific journals, as well as his position as a “think tank analyst” in Washington, Crawford compares the moral and ethical dimensions of this “white collar work” with his experience as an electrician and mechanic.

The most salient analysis for me on this topic was his comparison of the industrialization of labor at the turn of the century with what is now being called the post-industrial “knowledge economy.” The industrial age brought with it the theoretical separation of work that requires one’s hands, and work that requires one’s mind. The assembly line is managed by those capable of higher levels of abstract thought than those engaging in the actual physical labor. This theoretical separation between thinking and doing was made possible by the same separation in schools at the turn of the century. Student’s relative capacities for abstract thought were now being measured by standardized tests. These tests split the students into either “thinkers” or “doers”, making for the now familiar social classes of “white collar” and “blue collar.” As ethically degrading as the mindlessly repetitive assembly line work of the turn of the century was, Crawford argues that the technology of the post-industrial age is bringing similar phenomenon to white-collar work. Actual “knowledge work” is becoming concentrated into an ever-shrinking elite, while the rest of us effectively become clerks, subject to monotonous, and ultimately ethically degrading work.

So what does this mean for those of us thinking about the place of a liberal arts education in society? Let’s turn to Crawford’s hypothetical advice to a young person debating the decision to go to college:

“…If you have a natural bent for scholarship; if you are attracted to the most difficult books out of an urgent need, and can spare four years to devote yourself to them, go to college. In fact, approach college in the spirit of craftsmanship, going deep into the liberal arts and sciences. But if this is not the case; if the thought of four more years sitting in a classroom makes your skin crawl, the good news is that you don’t have to go through the motions and jump through the hoops for the sake of making a decent living. Even if you do go to college, learn a trade in the summers. You’re likely to be less damaged, and quite possibly better paid, as an independent tradesman than as a cubicle-dwelling tender of information systems or low-level “creative.” To heed such advice would require a certain contrarian streak, as it entails rejecting a life course mapped out by others as obligatory and inevitable.”

The most important part of this passage to remember is that it’s coming from a Philosophy Ph.D. This is a man who clearly cares deeply about the value of abstract thought while simultaneously understanding that it alone does NOT carry the privileged title of “the good.” If only politicians and educational policy makers could take such a nuanced position.