Education under fire?

North Carolina’s new governer has raised the ire of educators in the state’s university system by suggesting that the only purpose of higher education worth funding is training that will lead directly to jobs. I suspect he’s not the only governor doing so these days.

In a radio interview with conservative talk show host Bill Bennett — who was President Reagan’s education secretary — Republican Gov. Pat McCrory said the state’s university system is controlled by an “educational elite” who offer too many courses of study, such as gender studies or philosophy, that don’t translate directly into a place in the workforce.

Funding for higher education should be ““not based on how many butts in seats but how many of those butts can get jobs,” McCrory said. People who want to do gender studies should go to private colleges, he said.

The governer further complained that “two-thirds of my students are women” — while men who could be taking vocational training for “technical or mechanical or welding” jobs are on unemployment. The actual percentage of female students, a community college spokesman told the News & Observer, is about 61 percent.

The patriarchal — or patronizing — tone encompassed in the phrase “my students” is telling. As is the implication that those unemployed men couldn’t be taking vocational courses if they wanted to.

McCrory complained that former “tech schools” were taken over by the elite and reshaped as “community colleges” because more educated people look down on people with technical skills.

The governor claimed that he believes in a liberal arts education, but his other comments did little to support that statement. It is true, to an extent, that earning a college degree in the humanities does not set one up for a high-paying job in the same way that a degree in business or pharmacy would, or even an associate’s degree in auto mechanics — but job preparation is not the only, or even the primary, function of higher education.

When well done, a sound liberal arts education preserves important cultural understandings, instills a broad understanding of the world, and develops critical thinking skills that prepare society, as a whole, to better face the future. Many people who earn degrees in the humanities end up in jobs that may not relate directly their college coursework, but draw heavily from their broad base of knowledge, their analytic ability, and their wilingness to think for themselves. Investing in education is an investment in our future: it’s about heads that think, not just butts with jobs.

The Greek philosopher Socrates was known to criticize the Athenian goverment’s grandiose and often misguided plans, urging the people of Athens to think for themselves rather than blindly follow their leaders. In a city decimated by political blunders and bad leadership, the powers-that-be put the blame for their own failures on Socrates and sentenced him to death by poisoning with hemlock.

Will North Carolina’s renowned university system suffer a similar fate?

It’s tempting to suggest that part of the governor’s concern is that more highly educated men and women — especially those in the humanities — are more likely to be Democrats, and that he doesn’t want the state to subsidize a breeding ground for liberalism.

I don’t think that’s his primary concern, however. The unabashedly pro-business governor really does want more people to get jobs, and to be seen as the man responsible for helping create higher employment — but he’s pragmatic, too. He knows that any sense of increased prosperity will translate into votes for whoever does the most effective job of taking the credit — and that could manufacture a political dynasty.

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  1. Well said, Tony! Liberal arts when done well do help us all live together and understand each other. I agree that we do need more tech training and that humanities sometimes have problems (what doesn't?), but am a little concerned that this increased STEM emphasis is going to leave us with a bunch of people who can make money but contribute little to society. Soapbox!

  2. Ever since the Colonial period, this country has drifted increasingly toward the Roman notion of education, more inclined toward "training" for men to make money, than the Greek concept of paideia (a well-rounded education equipping one for a full life) thus leading to a plethora of vocational degrees.

    And now we have governors, as well as university and seminary presidents, who don't know the difference between education and training.

    And I think your analysis is correct, if expressed more tactfully than I would have: Republicans want a well-trained few who can run companies whose employees should be able to operate the equipment but not know too much about history, literature, philosophy, art, civics, economics, or politics and should be content with saying, "Thank you, Mastah, fo' givin' me this job." IMHO

    I think that most people aren't aware, or don't appreciate, that the "liberal" arts are the "liberating" arts, that is, those arts that liberate us from the bondage of ignorance and enable us to realize our potential as human beings, not just cogs in an economic machine!

  3. I do believe that we need to invest in math and science education in this country. In addition, we have to improve our unemployment rates. Perhaps one tactic should be injecting universities' career guidance programs with momentum, creativity and genuine belief in the career-worthy potential of liberal arts students. I know that my university's career services could have used all of the above when I was there; the message I received, as an English major, was "Maybe you should have picked a different course of study."

    There are seemingly endless instances of people discounting the usefulness of liberal arts degrees, but the truth is that they teach marketable and desirable skills–those that you outlined in your post and many more. These are skills I use every day in my paid job that I credit to my liberal arts education.

    I listened to four years of consistent doubt and derision from a few staff and students at my top-twenty university, and now I'm particularly disturbed by the fact that the highest elected official in my home state, despite his own liberal arts degree, seems to have adopted the same mindset. I hope he takes positive tactics to boost the opportunities available to everyone rather than sterilizing the soil in which thoughtful global citizens–those who are effective communicators, those who think creatively to solve problems, those who are empathetic, those who are willing to explore difficult questions–are nurtured.

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