What if Stanford were a vocational school?

Opinion by Adrian Liu
Feb. 28, 2020, 12:03 a.m.

Ruei-Hung Alex Lee argues in The Stanford Review that Stanford is a vocational school, and that there is nothing wrong with that. What is meant by the claim, “Stanford is a vocational school” is never made explicit in the article, however: a vocation can simply mean a trade or a profession, and in this sense a vocational school is simply a school that gives students the skills needed in a certain trade or profession. Saying Stanford is a vocational school, then, is saying that Stanford aims to teach you how to be a computer scientist or a historian. This is, it seems, the meaning that Lee intends. For him, “vocational” is the same as “careerist.” 

But “vocation” has a connotation that is not as present in “trade” or “profession.” A vocation can be a person’s trade or profession, but it can also be a person’s calling, a person’s life-work, which she finds particularly worthy and to which she feels a sense of great dedication. If we were to understand “vocation” in this sense, it would mean something very different to say that Stanford is a vocational school. It would mean that Stanford both teaches the computer science student how to write algorithms and the value of what the algorithm accomplishes, and when it might be better to put down the algorithmic lens. It would mean that the University not only teaches history majors in the methods of modern historical research but also motivates questions of why the field is the way it is, the value of what it accomplishes and the limitations of its interpretive approaches. 

In brief, the difference between teaching, say, computer science as a trade and teaching it as a vocation is the difference between producing a student who knows how to do the things that a computer scientist does and producing a student who is sensitive to the question what it means to be a computer scientist. If we think of the concept of a vocation in this more robust way, Stanford is not properly a vocational school. What’s more, in this sense of vocation, we would be better off if Stanford were a vocational school. 

We would be better off if Stanford graduated its uncommonly intelligent and driven computer science students (and here I use computer science only as a salient example) without only the knowledge of how to create complex computational systems and the abilities to solve a variety of well-defined problems using computational ends. We would be better off if Stanford produced more computer programmers and software engineers and economists who had a robust idea of what is worthwhile to be doing as a programmer or a software engineer or an economist, what their purpose was in doing what they were doing and what their responsibilities and limitations were. 

Perhaps the most famous use of the word “vocation” in scholarship is Max Weber’s 1917 lecture, “Scholarship as a Vocation.” Career prospects in scholarship were already dire when Weber delivered his lectures: whether an aspiring academic ever attains a permanent position, Weber said, “is simply a matter of chance,” and the young scholar must ponder the question whether he “truly thinks he can bear to see mediocrity after mediocrity promoted ahead of him, year after year, without becoming embittered inside.” In such a setting, the scholar must ask herself why she feels “called” to scholarship — why the scholar sees scholarship as a vocation, something worthy, something to which she can feel great dedication. Weber interrogates the meaning and purpose of scholarship, what the scholar’s responsibilities are, what disciplinary bounds she must take care not to cross. If you are going to be a scholar, you should at least know what you are getting into. 

The persistent difficulty of obtaining a steady job in academia stands in sharp contrast to the dizzying array of career options for the incoming Stanford student who has not yet decided what she will do, and in particular for the wealth of jobs awaiting the student who majors in many STEM fields. In a certain way, the nearly-opposite career situation facing newly minted Ph.D.s in most fields on the one hand and young CS graduates on the other raises in different ways the same question: what the meaning and purpose of each vocation is, what its members’ responsibilities are and what limitations they should recognize. 

The young scholar must be keenly aware of these considerations because nothing else will sustain her through seeing “mediocrity after mediocrity” promoted over her. The young technologist must be keenly aware of these considerations because, with myriad opportunities at her fingertips, she will otherwise be easily buffeted by the winds of what is easy, exciting or expedient rather than what is worthwhile. 

Of course, neither the young scholar nor the young technologist “must” consider these questions, and arguably the technologist in particular is in a certain sense better off (or at least her wallet and lifestyle are better off) if she does not consider such questions. So it’s not in the interest of each individual that I argue Stanford should take the idea of “vocation” more seriously. 

For most disciplines at Stanford, questions of what one in the discipline can do and should do are relegated in most cases to professional ethics classes. In fact, the most common way that students fulfill the Ethical Reasoning WAYS requirement is CS181W, a course that satisfies an important computer science major requirement. Some of these ethics classes are quite good, but they are far from central to any degree’s curriculum. And thinking of one’s career as a vocation is not solely an ethical question — it easily becomes a question of how one’s vocation aligns with one’s values and how one is leading one’s life in the world. 

The questions of one’s values and how one is leading one’s life are targets of the first-year intellectual experience plan. But it’s hard to imagine how a first-year course, intended to be degree agnostic, could do any work of relating such questions to what will eventually become one’s life-work — or, at least, one’s work. Lee asks how we can “debate economic and ethical implications without grounding them in real-life.” He is right: thinking of such issues in the classroom will be of minimal usefulness unless I can later consider how my considered opinions on purpose, meaning and morals cohere with the purposes, responsibilities and limitations of my chosen profession. 

Lee further argues that “vocationalism encourages us to understand the world with precision.” This, like his earlier point about grounding questions in real life, gestures at the idea that it is better to start from a particular standpoint than from the point of view of the universe. A vocational education would ask the questions of what it is most important for us to do and to care about, and what our responsibilities and limitations are, but it would do so from the particular standpoint of a vocation: whether that be the vocation of computer science, or economics or sociology or so forth. 

The questions, from the standpoint of a vocation, become specific and practicable. The question of what is most important for us to do becomes the question of how the computer scientist can best position herself to find and aid our most important shared projects. The question of what our responsibilities and limitations are becomes the question where the economist can be most useful and where he should defer to the expertise of another discipline. The question of what is most valuable becomes a question of what values should inhere in a product designer’s designed product.

Lee calls on students to “take pride in their vocational pursuits.” But without a clearer and more robust sense of vocation, such pride is misplaced. Only when one’s vocation is carefully considered does it make sense to take pride in one’s vocational pursuits. If you’re going to be proud of something, you should first understand what it is. 

Contact Adrian Liu at adliu ‘at’ stanford.edu

Adrian Liu '20 was Editor of Opinions in Volumes 257 and 259.

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