I'm half-way through Chapter 3 of Class Dismissed. This chapter traces the history of American views on education and its purpose. I'm not well-versed in this history, which is to say that while I've heard a number of narratives that most other people have also heard, I've never examined enough sources to say with confidence whether those narratives are truly representative of everything going on in society at the time. I know a tiny bit about what, say, some of the Puritans wrote 400 years ago, but I don't know how many people agreed with them or what else was going on.
Nonetheless, everything that I'm familiar with is consistent with Marsh's narrative that in early American history education was mostly viewed as being a path to character development rather than economic development. The Puritans, an under-appreciated group of early Americans (IMHO) were great promoters of literacy, but one of their main motives for promoting education (though certainly not the only motive) was so that people could study the Bible, not so that they could further the ends of Mammon. Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin were both involved in the founding of great universities (UVA and Penn, respectively) and both were interested in the development of citizens and leaders and the protection of liberty, not GDP growth. (Which is not to say that these industrious men were uninterested in commerce, just that they saw character development and civic virtue as the first order effects of education, and prosperity as resulting from character and work.)
Interestingly, Chad Orzel just put up a tangentially relevant post on defenses of the humanities (some of them being better than others). Although modern liberal arts advocates can (and probably should) cite all sorts of statistics about the economic prospects of liberal arts grads, the truth is that liberal arts education, especially in the traditional environment of a small, residential liberal arts college, is more about developing people than developing workers (and rightly so). Our most traditional institutions descend from an era where the purpose of higher education was, in part, to take the sons of a certain class and steer them through rites of passage in a residential experience that might vary in intellectual rigor (remember, George W. Bush graduated from Yale!) but included a fair amount of socialization, some of it simply frat parties but much of it indoctrination into the norms and rituals of a certain class, through the sports of the upper class, extracurriculars, etc. In that setting, it was fine to study art history rather than accounting because the purpose was to develop a certain type of man, who would then participate in the affairs of the class from which he came (or, for a few lucky scholarship students, the class which they were joining).
The immediate retort from passionate defenders of liberal arts colleges might be to cite the academic rigor and selectivity of elite liberal arts colleges in the modern era. First, I have immense respect for liberal arts colleges, including the way that they have kept their purpose of character-building and socialization while developing into a more modern concept of academic rigor and challenge. I believe that they have modernized in the best possible way. Second, I agree that many of them have made heroic efforts to blend academic selectivity with inclusive values, and that they are no longer merely places for the sons (and now daughters) of a certain class to go through rites of passage.
My point in mentioning these institutions and their roots in the past is not to condemn them as relics, but to contrast them with an unhealthily vocational modern view of education. I think that every passionate defender of the liberal arts would agree that a purely vocational view of higher education is ill-advised. What I see Marsh bringing to this conversation is a recognition that viewing education as the primary path to class mobility, a view endorsed by a great many people in a great many settings, including some of the most committed defenders of inclusive values, is fundamentally a vocational view of college. Even viewing a philosophy degree from a residential college as a path to economic class mobility is, in an important sense, a vocational view of college, and Marsh is trying to make us recognize that so that we might challenge it.
Marsh also makes the case that prior to the 20th century, and even into the 20th century for many people, the path to prosperity was seen as arising from work ethic, good character, and ingenuity, not academic achievement. This is peripherally in synchrony with Lani Guinier's urging that academic institutions promote teamwork over individual scholastic prowess, though prosperity is not Guinier's primary motive in urging reform of higher education. (Indeed, she urges less emphasis on individuals seeking the highest possible income.) This is also in synchrony with my exposure to older books and magazines and entertainment urging young kids to work hard and be honest and thereby achieve the American Dream; GPA is not mentioned much.
I'm just at the part of the chapter where Marsh gets into how education got to be viewed as the paramount path to prosperity in the eyes of social reformers. I'll blog about that when I've finished the chapter.