In this morning’s New York Times, Frank Bruni has a must-read column on the purposes of higher education. He focuses upon a debate currently consuming Texas, but anyone who has listened to the rhetoric coming from the Indiana General Assembly will recognize it as an issue equally salient in Indiana.
As Bruni poses the central question:”Do we want our marquee state universities to behave more like job-training centers, judged by the number of students they speed toward degrees, the percentage of those students who quickly land good-paying jobs and the thrift with which all of this is accomplished? In the service of that, are we willing to jeopardize some of the trailblazing research these schools have routinely done and the standards they’ve maintained?”
I would suggest an even more basic question: are we willing to value education? Do our lawmakers even recognize that education is not the same thing as job training? Do they see any value in the liberal arts, or in research that adds to the sum of human understanding and knowledge? Evidently not.
Bruni quotes the new Governor of Virginia on the subject: “Pat McCrory, the new governor of North Carolina, recently advocated legislation to distribute funds to the state’s colleges based not on their enrollments — or, as he said on a radio show, on “butts in seats” — but instead on “how many of those butts can get jobs. If you want to take gender studies, that’s fine, go to a private school,” he added. “But I don’t want to subsidize that if that’s not going to get someone a job.”
The current emphasis on what we used to call “vocational education” not only minimizes the value of education itself, it ignores the reality of today’s job market. Most college graduates will have several careers–not just jobs, but careers–and a significant number of those have yet to be invented. Students who emerge with “training” rather than an education that prepares them to think, to apply critical analytic skills to a rapidly changing economy and world, will soon need re-training.
Students who have been taught to think only instrumentally–who value only instruction that is immediately applicable economically, who are satisfied with the “how” and never ask “why”–are already at a considerable disadvantage. We have plenty of those students now, and I often want to invert the dismissive and ignorant statement made by Virginia’s Governor, and tell them: If you just want to learn how to manufacture widgets or push paper, fine.
Go to a trade school.