Teleological and Other Fancy Words

So I was all happy about what I thought was this terrific insight about the vocational model of education, and after thinking about it for a couple days, I realize that I was actually just excited about using a big word, and actually kind of misusing it, to boot. My misguided notion was that the vocational model is teleological in nature because it looks to final causes (getting a good job) as the motivator for going to college.

Obviously, this is a bit of an oversimplification, and it’s taking “teleological” in its broadest sense, which I realized when I tried to think of how its counterpart in the liberal education model would be characterized, and the best I could come up with was. . . Well, never mind. It’s way goofy; my thinking was that if the vocational model favors getting the student towards that final cause of the career, then the liberal education model favors helping the student to live in the moment and negotiate a diverse spectrum of contexts. You get the idea.

Still, there may be a bit of use in that direction of thought, sans fancy terminology. I’m thinking of how I tried to explain my slight modification of Berlin’s idea about these different models of education to my Dad, and how he corrected me. I started by talking about how high school students tend to think about college as a choice between (1) flipping burgers and (2) going to college so you can get a better job. To which my Dad replied, “No, they see it as a choice between flipping burgers and going to college instead of flipping burgers,” and I think he’s right. I’d forgotten my own experience, and how short my horizons were in high school: I certainly wasn’t thinking years into the future about my career; I was just thinking about what I was going to do in the next ten months or so, when I thought that far ahead. There were a lot of kids like me in my high school, and there were a lot of kids like me that first year at college. So this makes me ask: when I say “vocational” or “liberal education,” whose models are those? Do students claim them?

Oliver suggested that a lot of students have that vocational view, with which I would be inclined to agree, thought I think that such a condition may be a product of our increasingly exchange-oriented society, where “What’s the payoff?” has become the most important question. (Aw, quit griping, Mike. Cicero asked cui bono? two thousand years ago.)

In any case, it’s a reductive binary. People have many and mixed motivations for going to college. But the thing that really set me off on the teleological kick was Mankiw’s argument that, “Like all forms of capital, education represents an expenditure of resources at one point in time to raise productivity in the future. But, unlike an investment in other forms of capital, an investment in education is tied to a specific person and this linkage is what makes it human capital” (419). The look towards the payoff made me start trying to figure out who really makes that investment, and who “cashes in”; who benefits. I’m sure Marx will help me unpack this. (Must. . . read. . . faster. . . .)

But, while we’re setting up reductive binaries, I should add that Mankiw opposes the “human capital” view of education to the “signaling” view of education. According to the signaling view, “firms use educational attainment as a way of sorting between high-ability and low-ability workers” (422), so that college doesn’t so much make you more productive as it marks you as being more productive, because it’s easier for a high-ability person to get that degree. In other words, going to college conveys a message about you, and — to return to my earlier exchange with Thomas and Oliver — gatekeeping should be understood as a benign means of sorting workers more efficiently. So, yeah, by my perspective, it would really suck if the signaling view were an accurate representation of the way education works.

Mankiw continues: “According to the human-capital view, increasing educational levels for all workers would raise the workers’ productivity and thereby their wages. According to the signaling view, education does not enhance productivity, so raising all workers’ educational levels would not affect wages” (423). Would a connection to the vocational and liberal education models here be stretching things? I’m thinking that the human-capital view understands education as a form of skill-building, and the signaling view understands education as a form of gatekeeping (and therefore elitist?). David Bartholomae, in “Inventing the University”, understands acculturation as a project that will eventually mark the student as belonging to the academic discourse community, which seems to me to be a signaling view. I wonder: would Charlie Moran characterize his perspectives on access as a signaling view?

Teleological and Other Fancy Words

2 thoughts on “Teleological and Other Fancy Words

  • June 25, 2003 at 8:55 am

    Hi Mike,

    Ref. your comment: So this makes me ask: when I say “vocational” or “liberal education,” whose models are those? Do students claim them?

    Somehow this feels crucial if we’re going to be talking about class & composition, or class & computers. Lots of us talk about the function of education–and teleological feels OK here!–but whose perceptions do we draw on as we make these broad statements? And, if we don’t draw on students’ perceptions of why they are in school, does that matter? Food for thought here—

  • October 17, 2003 at 9:11 am

    Hi there,
    Just wanted to say hello to everyone here. My deepest regards.

    Best wishes as always,

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