Vocation vs Cultivation: The Role of Public College Education in a Democratic Society

Globally, there has been serious debate about the purpose and value of public college education. This debate has been highlighted by a raft of controversial policies— in Brazil, President Jair M. Bolsonaro announced plans to defund the philosophy and sociology majors in public universities, and Viktor Orban’s government in Hungary similarly announced plans to defund gender studies majors in public universities (Weinberg, Reuters Budapest Bureau). Clashing views of what public college education is for may be most apparent in the American state of Wisconsin, where in 2015 Governor Scott Walker attempted to rewrite the mission statement of the University of Wisconsin system, redefining the purpose of public college education (Strauss).

In these cases, politicians view public college education as purely vocational. Bolsonaro justified his government’s decision to defund philosophy and sociology majors on the grounds that public education ought to:

“respect the taxpayer’s money, [teach] young people to read, write, and learn job skills that generates income for the person and well-being for the family, which improves the society around them” (Weinberg).

Similarly, Scott Walker attempted to change the University of Wisconsin system’s mission statement:

“by removing words that commanded the university to “search for truth” and “improve the human condition” and replacing them with “meet the state’s workforce needs”” (Strauss).

Valerie Strauss, who reported on Scott Walker’s attempt to change the University of Wisconsin system’s mission statement in The Washington Post, offered an assessment of the stakes of this mission statement change. She argued that “[t]here is a national debate about what the role of colleges and universities should be,” where one side sees college education as “a training ground for workers in the American workplace,” and the other “sees college education as a way to broaden the minds of young people and teach them how to be active, productive citizens of the country” (Strauss). In my view, this “national debate” is a global debate. It is a debate that is linked to worries of rising authoritarianism, and democracy in peril. Critics of Bolsonaro, Orban, and Walker allege that their attitudes towards education are really motivated by an authoritarian desire to quash discussion of “topics and activities that [they do] not like” (Nichols, Wilson, Weinberg). On this view, these leaders’ talk of serving the needs of the taxpayer and the workforce is disingenuous, serving only as cover for striking against perceived political foes. These interlinked debates raise serious questions about the relationship between democracy, the government, and college education. Is there merit to the idea that public college education should primarily be a form of vocational training? In a democratic society, what should public college education be for?

In 2020, Americans will have the chance to vote on candidates with starkly different views of public college education. More moderate candidates seeking the Democratic Party’s nomination follow Bolsonaro and Walker in viewing public college education as a primarily vocational. The former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, Pete Buttigieg, unveiled a public college education plan called “The American Opportunity Agenda: Affordable College, Stronger Workforce Development, & Lifelong Learning.” As Buttigieg sets up the need for this plan, he describes college as an increasingly necessary requirement for landing a well-paying job and launching a career (Buttigieg). He concludes that college ought to be more affordable because “[w]e need to ensure that workers have access to the training and education that will make them—and our economy—successful” (Buttigieg). In concrete terms, Buttigieg presents public college as a form of government-subsidized job training, whose job is to provide graduates with well-paid jobs and increase the overall value of the economy. This philosophy is best encapsulated by an extraordinarily revealing tun of phrase in Buttigieg’s Opportunity Agenda: “The average graduate with a bachelor’s degree starts their life with around $30,000 of debt” (Buttigieg). On Buttigieg’s view, starting life and entering the labor force are synonyms.

By contrast, the democratic socialist candidate Bernie Sanders has a plan, “College for All and Cancel All Student Debt,” that makes a moral case for free public college and canceling student loan debt. In his plan, Sanders argues that free college does not just provide access to a well-paying career, but also freedom, freedom that every American deserves. He makes the case that “[y]ou are not truly free when you cannot pursue your dream of becoming a teacher, environmentalist, journalist or nurse because you cannot make enough money to cover your monthly student loan payments” (Sanders). On this view, free public college is desirable because it allows people to exercise self-determination— it gives them the tools to choose what to do with their lives, and the freedom to follow their dreams. Public college education is there to serve the needs of the students, not just the needs of the workforce.

This contrast has real policy consequences. Sanders believes every American deserves the freedoms public college provides, and so he proposes to make public college tuition-free for all. Buttigieg believes public college is a tool that allows Americans to secure well-paying jobs, so he proposes making public college tuition-free for students whose families make up to 100,000 US dollars per year. Sanders believes student loans impose an “outrageous” burden on Americans trying to pursue their dreams, so he proposes not only canceling all current student debt but also capping the interest rate on future student loans. Buttigieg believes student should “never owe more than they can afford” on student loans, so he proposes automatically enrolling students in income-based repayment plans where outstanding student loan debt will be canceled after twenty years of payments.

We have seen different positions on what public college should be for in a democratic society, with substantially different implications for policy that affects peoples’ lives. To evaluate these different claims, and to come to a better understanding of what public college ought to be for, we should turn to political theory. In Not For Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities, philosopher Martha C. Nussbaum contrasts two models of education, Education for Profit and Education for Democracy. Education for Profit, on Nussbaum’s view, is a regime of public education designed to increase the net GDP of the country and not much more; it favors “a pedagogy of force-feeding for standardized national examinations,” cultivating basic literacy, basic numeracy, and technical skills in a single subject (Nussbaum, 19). An Education for Democracy, by contrast, is designed to cultivate virtues in students that give them the capabilities to make use of their liberties and pursue happiness as they see fit (25). These capabilities include the capability to think critically about political affairs, to treat others with empathy, and as ends in themselves, to have a robust imagination, and to be mindful of the good of both the nation and the world (25-26). Nussbaum views Education for Democracy as the desirable model, as it gives people the capability to function well in a democracy, something Nussbaum describes as “a key ingredient of a life worthy of human dignity” (24). On Nussbaum’s view, public college education provides essential capabilities to citizens. Seeing college as purely workplace training would a grievous mistake, something that would impede students’ ability to live dignified lives. Bolsonaro, Orban, Walker, and Buttigieg’s visions of education are thus morally objectionable on Nussbaum’s view. While Sanders’s College for All plan is framed as creating the capability for students to make use of their liberties and pursue happiness, it offers no specifics on how public college education can cultivate the virtues in students necessary to properly participate in democracy. All the political visions and plans we have discussed do not meet the ideal of Education for Democracy, though Sanders’s plan comes by far the closest.

In Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy, Joseph A. Schumpeter strongly contests the idea that people can be capable of participating in government in the way Nussbaum describes. Specifically, he takes issue with education’s penitential to develop in citizens the capability to think critically about politics. Schumpeter argues that people fail to reason well in politics, not because they lack the ability to reason, but rather because they lack immediate costs or benefits for their actions. He asks us to compare the attention and care a (hypothetical) lawyer pours into reading a legal brief with the same lawyer’s cavalier attitude towards reading a newspaper (Schumpeter, 261-262). Schumpeter concludes that “without the initiative that comes from immediate responsibility, ignorance will persist in the face of masses of information however complete and correct” (262). Further, he argues that attempts to cultivate people out of this ignorance through education cannot generally succeed:

“[Ignorance] persists even in the face of the meritorious efforts that are being made to go beyond presenting information and to teach the use of it by means of lectures, classes, discussion groups. Results are not zero. But they are small. People cannot be carried up the ladder” (262).

If we agree that people, as Schumpeter puts it, cannot be carried up the ladder, then Nussbaum’s goal of developing capabilities in students seems quixotic. Ignorance stems from a lack of initiative and immediate responsibility, and one simply cannot educate these qualities into students. Schumpeter’s objection can lead us to believe there is no special Education for Democracy that is in any way key to living a dignified life, and so Nussbaum’s objection to viewing education as purely vocational falls away.

My own view is this. The intuition that people ought to be able to shape their own destinies, to have an equal say in decisions that affect them, is an intuition that can provide justification for democracy and that I find very compelling (Robinson). In “Fugitive Democracy,” Sheldon S. Wolin tells us that democracy is often linked to revolution, “for the demos could not participate in power without shattering the class, status, and value systems by which it was excluded” (Wolin, 17). This idea, that democracy is public participation in power, in self-determination, is an idea I intuitively find persuasive. If we grant that democracy is about the exercise of power, both in one’s own life and in the political arena, we can make a case that in a democratic society, public college education ought to develop in students the capability to exercise those powers. The role of education in a democracy is to break boundaries between students and participation in power. This view preserves some of Nussbaum’s intuitions while also evading Schumpeter’s objection. Even if Schumpeter is completely correct, and political education produces only small results, a democratic society still ought to provide that education. Whether students proceed to exercise power is entirely up to them. On this view, Sanders’s plan shines the brightest. It promotes self-determination through tuition-free college and breaks boundaries between people and self-determination by canceling student debt. Perhaps democracy demands College for All.

Works Cited:

Buttigieg, Peter. “The American Opportunity Agenda: Affordable College, Stronger Workforce Development, & Lifelong Learning.” Pete for America, 2019.

Nichols, John. “Scott Walker targets the ‘search for truth’.” The Cap Times, February 2015.

Nussbaum, Martha C. Not For Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities. Princeton University Press, 2010.  

Reuters Budapest Bureau. “Hungary to stop financing gender studies courses: PM aide.” Reuters, August 2018.

Robinson, Nathan J. “Socialism as a Set of Principles.” Current Affairs, March 2018.

Sanders, Bernard. “College for All and Cancel All Student Debt.” berniesanders.com, 2019.

Schumpeter, Joseph A. Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy. Routledge, 1943.

Strauss, Valerie. “How Gov. Walker tried to quietly change the mission of the University of Wisconsin.” The Washington Post, February 2015.

Weinberg, Justin. “Brazilian Government To Defund Philosophy in Public Universities.” Daily Nous, April 2019.

Weinberg, Justin. “British Philosophical Association Defends Philosophy in Brazil.” Daily Nous, May 2019.

Wilson, Lesley. “State control over academic freedom in Hungary threatens all universities.” The Guardian, September 2018.

Wolin, Sheldon S. “Fugitive Democracy.” Constellations, Vol. 1, No. 1, 1994, pp. 11-25.


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At Yale-NUS College, we are thinking about ideals of equality and democracy, and how they relate to practice, in Singapore and in the wider world.

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Articles were originally submitted as course papers for Professor Sandra Field’s classes Contemporary Egalitarianism and Democratic Theory.

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