In the early 19th Century, Yale College was part of a national debate about college curricula, especially whether it made sense to continue to require students to study Latin and Greek. The faculty responded with a carefully argued position, which is referred to as the Yale Report of 1828. Their report continues to be instructive as evidenced by the excerpt below.
(Because Yale did not become co-ed until 1969, the report’s language assumes only male students.)
“As our course of instruction is not intended to complete an education in theological, medical, or legal science; neither does it include all the minute details of mercantile, mechanical, or agricultural concerns. These can never be effectually learned except in the very circumstances in which they are to be practiced. The young merchant must be trained in the counting room, the mechanic, in the workshop, the farmer, in the field. But we have, on our premises, no experimental farm or retail shop; no cotton or iron manufactory; no hatter’s, or silversmith’s, or coach-maker’s establishment. For what purpose, then, it will be asked, are young men who are destined to these occupations, ever sent to a college? They should not be sent, as we think, with an expectation of finishing their education at the college; but with a view of laying a thorough foundation in the principles of science, preparatory to the study of the practical arts. As everything cannot be learned in four years, either theory or practice must be, in a measure at least, postponed to a future opportunity. But if the scientific theory of the arts is ever to be acquired, it is unquestionably first in order of time. The corner stone must be laid, before the superstructure is erected.”
Their argument is a healthy reminder of the long tradition in American culture of the value of being a generally educated person and lifelong learner, no matter what your job or career. Benjamin Franklin is perhaps the most well known proponent of this position, but it was also the philosophy of Ambassador James Scott Kemper, the founder of the James S. Kemper Foundation. He knew the most successful employees would have these characteristics.
Not only a strong workforce but also the success of our democracy depends upon a generally educated populace of lifelong learners.
Beyond that, the excerpt offers a corrective to the common idea that college should give one all the education needed for one’s career, rather than simply the basis for learning the specifics. As the Yale faculty point out, not everything can be learned in four years.
A college education should be the foundation on which we can construct learning about the peculiar content and skills of each of our careers. Indeed, we will undoubtedly move through a number of careers as we and the world inevitably and quickly change in the future. How could students prepare in college for careers that will not even appear until after they have graduated?
The Yale faculty’s position also presents an argument for college students’ learning their career skills outside the undergraduate classroom. While the faculty may have been thinking about graduate schools or apprenticeships, in our time internships and cooperative education also fill the need.
Finally, it is refreshing to be reminded that there was a time when people who were going to do jobs like manufacturing hats or coaches or silver utensils were deemed worthy of a college education and not confined solely to vocation-technical education. For much of our history, education was more about shaping people and preparing citizens that about career preparation.