Producing Educated Citizens–or Worker Bees?

A recent, lengthy post at Talking Points Memo blames conservatives, liberals and accrediting agencies for a decline in the excellence of American higher education–a decline that is widely remarked upon.

First comes conservatives seeking a corporate transformation or restructuring of higher education. One option comes through the rise of for-profit private colleges, offering a game plan of expensive tuition and pricey administrators, delivered mostly with low cost adjunct professors in often cookie-cutter, interchangeable curriculum delivered online.

This is Fordism coming to higher education… The other option is traditional schools adopting this model; employing business leaders to run schools and developing cost containment policies aimed mostly at standardizing curriculum. It is top-down decision-making premised upon treating faculty no differently than an assembly line worker….The result: a market-driven product devoid of innovation, creativity, and intellectual challenge.

Liberals come second, often joined by religious conservatives, bent on enforcing political correctness on campus and in producing a curriculum that offends no one. Captured in the Atlantic by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt in their article “The Coddling of the American Mind,” there is a push to insulate students from ideas and words that they do not like. Across the country schools are adopting policies demanding trigger warnings or alerting faculty to forms of microaggression that students find objectionable. The result is not only an erosion of academic freedom but a curriculum that is uninteresting and devoid of learning.

Finally comes the accrediting agencies who have taken the assessment lessons from K-12 and are imposing them on higher education. They demand schools measure and test students and curriculum by developing a complex process of goals, objectives, rubrics.

I would add to these indictments a more foundational issue: until we reach agreement on what we mean by education, we will never be able to focus on the question of how best to provide it.

Far too many “education reformers” at all levels fail to recognize the fundamental difference between genuine education and job training–between intellectual flowering and the inculcation of skills needed by the marketplace. It doesn’t help that state legislatures and Commissions on Higher Education focus on graduation rates and  employment metrics to the exclusion of all else.

Evidently, if you can’t count it, it doesn’t count.

It’s probably heresy for a Professor to say this, but not every high school graduate is a candidate for college. There is nothing wrong with job training–it’s important and entirely legitimate– and such training can meet the needs of a number of students. If we were to reserve the university experience for young people who display intellectual curiosity, a capacity for serious scholarship and/or a demonstrable passion for the life of the mind, both the institutions and their graduates would benefit.

As a bonus, we could trim those bloated administrations, disabuse ourselves of the notion that educational institutions should be “run like businesses,” and stop coddling students who demand protection against ideas they find threatening.

Ideas can be right or wrong, comforting or offensive–but to find any idea “threatening” is a signal that one is unfit to be educated.


  1. The proliferation of for-profit educational outlets is a concern for sure. More problematic to my way of thinking is the continued and expanding model of education that teaches students “what to think” and not “how to think”. Rather than calling them “worker bees”, I call them “sheep”. You can herd them anywhere.

  2. We have 7 grandchildren, ages 19-28. The two youngest are in college. All graduated from public school except one, who took the GED to enter the National Guard. All are independent thinkers. Two brothers make Wikipedia unnecessary (a slight exaggeration). Their cousins are similarly well educated. Is this anecdotal? Yes. Is our family out of the ordinary? I don’t know.

  3. We really do need to focus on providing technical training for high school graduates that do not want to go to college, but would benefit from training that would enable them to find employment with a good income in a field that is in demand by companies. I do believe that this training should be taxpayer subsidized. If the skills in demand are actually specific for a company or manufacturing sector, then I believe that those companies should carry the bulk of the financial responsibility for the training that they specifically need. It is just too risky for an individual to train for a very specific field without a guarantee of employment in that field. Taxpayers also should not shoulder this responsibility just for the benefit of a company.

    Over the past three decades college has become a very big business with massive budgets to meet. As a Purdue graduate I was not happy when the trustees “chose” Mitch Daniels as the president. I’m sure it had nothing to do with his personal trustee appointments while he was the governor, said no one ever. He has attempted to stop the growth of expenses at Purdue, which is admirable. I also am interested in his plan to follow the job placement rates for each major, with the concern whether students should invest in a major that ultimately will never lead to employment in that field or at the very least will not lead to employment that would sustain an average standard of living. This is a good idea, but I am sure it will lead to the elimination of several liberal arts majors. Maybe it is past time for some of those majors to end if they have become an expensive burden that leads down a road to no valuable future. Maybe some of those classes could serve as valuable elective classes for students in other majors.

    What we all do know is that a college education has become far too expensive and there are not enough jobs in the real world to support all of the college graduates. It is definitely past time to be providing valuable one or two year programs that will lead to gainful and satisfying employment for millions of high school graduates who would never benefit from a college degree.

  4. The concept that not all students need to go to college is one I have long thought to be a good one. We as a country need to remember that “blue collar” work is as worthy of respect as “white collar” work. Plumbers, electricians, and craftspeople of all types are necessary. Another business major is not.

  5. Agree on all points….I really think we need to have more training programs or at least access to training programs for kids who for whatever reasons (money, desire, intellect, professional pursuits, etc…) are not going to college. I know a fair number of folks who did not want to go to college but also didn’t have access to some of the trades like plumber and steamfitters, mechanics, electricians, etc… so many of these folks choose military service in hopes they gain some of these skills. My dad retired from 40years in the military and my sister joined because there were few options available for her at this time.

    I have been in some form of college since 1987….Bachelor’s in Psychology but spent alot of time dabbling in all types of studies (graduated w/ 158 credits), Bachelor’s in Nursing when I realized my Bachelor’s in Psychology gave me little if any access to a job outside of customer service at Kmart or a psych. tech job at The Hamilton Center (all minimum wage jobs). It was a recession and nursing helped me pay for college and my intent was to become a counselor; but after battling on behalf of my patients w/ the Statehouse and their contracted companies they doled money out to manage mental health care I chose to get my Master’s in Public Affairs after successfully assisting in the ending the contract of two of these companies. College is too expensive to not come out with a job. Higher education has to take a look at where they are spending their money as these costs have got to come down.

    Political correctness…now this gave me a chuckle. During my youth I tried hard not to offend and so I was a PC queen until I realized PC lead to zero discussions. Especially zero discussions on those ‘taboo’ topics. I believe in being respectful but our of fear of what you could or could not say caused people not to talk. I recall attending a conversation at the Afro-American Cultural Center on ISU’s campus. So many of the students were arguing over the use of African Americans being used for all black students. Some didn’t want to be called that as their family origins were from other countries. I spoke up as one of the few white people….I said that I want to be respectful but I get criticized for stating African American, etc… I suggested we wear buttons of what we want to be called if we are going to get criticized. My button would say Irish/Welsh/American. I quickly learned PC was preventing real discussion.

  6. Nancy and Jane; thank you! What would we do without brick masons, custodians, plumbers, trash pickup, burger-flippers, department store cashiers and customer service assistants, bakers, semi drivers, food servers; the list is endless for those who provide necessary services we expect to always be there for us. All those “worker bees” we depend on without realizing it.

    I have regretted not getting a college education but I learned much “on the job”; invaluable training for support staff in government and business. College education is important and should be an attainable goal for those qualified to continue education to become leaders and it should be available to them without indebtedness that spans decades. I have always believed there are two classes of workers in this world; the “movers and shakers” and the “plodders and doers”. Without the “plodders and doers” the “movers and shakers” would get noting done, but…without the “movers and shakers” the “plodders and doers” would have nothing to do:) Just sayin’ as a proud member of the “plodders and doers”.

  7. As a child of blue collar workers (union no less), we survived well enough with those earnings but not enough to pay for college (which in the late 70s and 80s was actually affordable). Lathe operators are still needed. Plumbers, electricians, carpenters, welders, trash collectors, etc, can and should be paid a livable wage and those positions are hurting for students to take over for the elders that cannot work until they are 70+ yrs old. College isn’t for everyone and considering the costs of college these days, only the elite can afford them. Student loans are a disaster and I can’t believe how expensive it is now. I paid my way through college and didn’t graduate until I was 45. And you know why I even bothered? Because I got sick and tired of my colleagues, male mostly, getting paid far more for doing the same work.

  8. Wayne, I suspect that your family represents the educational outcomes that come about because the family leadership put a very high value on education. And that value was and is for the pursuit of knowledge as opposed to money making. Lucky you!

  9. Exactly right. There is more to education than producing drones for Microsoft. We are also producing citizens,public servants, parents, artists, and creative thinkers of all sorts. And we have to get some kind of vocational ed back into the high schools so that education can serve everyone. Heaven knows we need our skilled tradespeople and our garbage collectors.

  10. I had several reactions to today’s blog. Here’s one.

    “bent on enforcing political correctness on campus and in producing a curriculum that offends no one.”

    I’m not even sure what this means.

    Why should higher education be offensive?

    To me I guess there is a huge difference between being challenging and offensive. Challenging to me means several things among them sharpening ones critical thinking.

    For instance the well known skepticism of the scientific method requires that scientists in the peer review process be critical, challenging, and puts the responsibility on the critic to out think, out data, and out explain everyone until the hypothesis in question is fully understood and resolved.

    But I have never seen the need or attempts to be offensive. It simply doesn’t add value.

    Another example is famed oriental inscrutability. Zero un-correctness. Usually when westerners whine about that it’s because they’ve been out negotiated by it.

    So I’m hoping that today here someone can explain to me why political correctness is a problem needing a solution especially in the context of higher education.

  11. A good book about higher education is “The End of College”. Here’s a review of it.

    The review seems pretty balanced to me.

    The gist of the book however is that higher education administration has failed in the same way that health care has failed in America. They’ve priced themselves out of business.

    Given the magnitude of that problem, the magnitude of the solution is daunting. But, like climate change being daunted by the solution has nothing to do with the problem. It is what it is. We have eliminated the option of not solving the problem.

    So the discussions should be centered on what are our options?

    Kevin Cary’s analysis of at least some solutions seems well thought out to me. Perfect? Absolutely not. It would have been smarter of us to avoid creating the problem but we failed that test. So given today and what real options we have his proposals may be among the best that we have left for ourselves.

  12. For several months, the NY Times has published articles, both pro and con, regarding trigger warnings being established by university professors whereby students would be warned in advance if a particular topic or reading might disturb their sensitivities.

    Brown University seems to have gone overboard in protecting its students from being exposed to ideas and thoughts that might offend them. A copy and paste explaining Brown University’s setting up “safe places” to protect the students once they’ve been offended: “The safe space is intended to give people who might find comments “troubling” or “triggering,” a place to recuperate. The room is equipped with cookies, coloring books, bubbles, Play-Doh, calming music, pillows, blankets and a video of frolicking puppies.” No, I did not invent this, did not make up this scenario.

  13. Well said, Sheila. The notion that everyone is expected to attend college diminishes the importance of college. It is amazing to me how many people who have attended college are not wise, they cannot think for themselves, have no ideals, and don’t know much of anything useful. They are not “educated” at all. They are part of, for want of a better phrase “education inflation”. At the turn of the 20th Century, graduating from high school was not the norm, and those who did were the brightest. Now, everyone expects they should go to college.

  14. “Trigger warnings” seems to be the key watch phrase (read fashion) among those advocating for both political correctness and incorrectness.

    I take a trigger warning to be like the text that typically accompanies a movie rating. Here’s what’s coming.

    They strike me as a balance between censorship and everyone for himself.

    I’ve always tried to avoid insulation from the real world. What is, is, and we all have to learn to deal with it as best we can. Much of it is cultural designed to make a provocative statement about a subculture and, in the end, as long as it’s not physically harmful to anyone why not accommodate it.

  15. It seems to me the end of public education is the point at which people have been exposed to everything needed to live the life of a good citizen and successful participant in normal life. Of course that changes at an alarming rate.

    Post public education should be those things that are specialized, only some need them to support their somewhat unique contributions. Everybody needs to know how to write but not everybody needs to know how to write commercially successful novels.

    Sheila and I sometimes get into thoughts about the specifics of where the everybody vs specialist line is for civics and science. Good topics but I would guess what we’d all agree on is that more and more knowledge in each of those fields have become table stakes.

  16. As Ms Kennedy admitted, “It’s probably heresy for a Professor to say this, but not every high school graduate is a candidate for college.” And, after 28 years as a high school educator in four different states, I applaud her candor.

    At present in the Indianapolis Public Schools, all students working toward a high school diploma are expected to complete the Core 40 Curriculum which basically is the college prep curriculum. For those students who know they’re not interested in college or university, it’s an uphill battle to declare their intent to pursue the Indiana General High School Diploma.

    In the mid-2000’s, the IPS Superintendent eliminated all on-site high school vocational classes because he believed they were not rigorous, the buzz-word at that time. Of course, there was an unintended consequence to that decision, the student drop-out rate increased simply because those vocational courses were the very courses that kept a large number of students interested in attending school on a regular basis.

    Here’s the link to the current thinking on Indiana High School diplomas:

  17. Natasha; I must take issue with your initial comment, the notion that everyone must attend college diminishes people, not colleges. My only college level education consists of three Continuing Education courses at IUPUI; two instructors used the teaching format Theresa referred to as teaching “what to think”, the third taught us “how to think”. Guess which one I learned the most from and benefit from years later.

  18. I’ve worked for eight companies in my 30 years since college, and really only three of them appreciated educated, critical thinkers. In my experience what companies really want is worker bees, and suggestions for improvement of the company’s processes are resented.
    And of course since the gold standard in this sorry excuse for a country is what companies want (not what they need, mind you) there will continue to be pressure on the school system to produce drones. The problem is that when drones are promoted into management, they are complete failures.

  19. @Ron, during my 28 years with large public school districts in four different states, I never felt I was a drone, a worker bee. Perhaps that’s simply my inborn temperament because I surely heard enough observations similar to yours from co-workers along the way.

    My idea of a drone is a person who must punch in on a time clock upon arriving at the workplace and later punching out at the end of the day. I never experienced that in any workplace, including IPS where frankly my opinion was requested by every administrator I encountered. On a few occasions, I shared my unsolicited opinion with an on-site visiting Deputy Superintendent, and I never received repercussions from sharing my professional thoughts.

    If a college-educated person feels that he/she is nothing more than a drone, then I’d suggest reviewing your overall professional self-confidence and subsequently spending time developing a professional presence. Seriously, presence is far more important than most realize.

  20. Jo Ann: you are both wiser and better-educated than most college graduates. The courses you took only helped you develop the potential that was there already. You would have grown and developed ideas and values whether you had taken these courses or not because that was always within you. How many of your fellow students are as wise and thoughtful as you are?

  21. Natacha; thank you for the compliments, I never understood why friends and coworkers thought I WAS college educated. When I commented that to a friend, he asked why I thought people believed I was college educated and and were surprised I was a dropout with a GED; I said I thought they were just being nice.

  22. I have to agree with Ron. I have worked 20 years in healthcare as a nurse and as a person who likes to problem solve and find solutions to problems in my experience healthcare administration just wants worker bees or at least as the facilities I have worked for….it is extremely frustrating as I can clearly see issues and will bring up concerns; but so many managers get to those positions because they have either been there forever, are the ‘yes’ people for administration, or they were good at their job which doesn’t always mean they will be good managers. Then again the healthcare environment is pretty toxic.

  23. @ RN – I previously worked at two hospitals. I was specifically brought in both times to resolve serious issues. At the first hospital I was met with disdain by the employees that had been there forever and saw no problems whatsoever. They had moved up the ranks when it became their turn. I was given the responsibility to make changes without the authority. It was pure hell. Eventually, an outside consulting team was hired by the board and they pointed put my predicament. Only then was I given the authority to make the necessary changes to ensure financial viability. The second hospital was much more open and progressive. Changes were made much more rapidly and without punishment.

    I have worked at other organizations where job protectionism and managers completely unqualified for their jobs do not want to even hear about possible improvements. Just shut up and join the statis quo or leave.

  24. @BSH. I can only assume that within the school systems you have worked in that job protectionism was never an issue. It is Not all about self-confidence and professionalism, especially when you are thrown in among uneducated employees that are unqualified for their positions. They get very angry at anyone who might have the audacity to suggest improvements to the way they have been doing things ‘forever’.

  25. @ BSH. I can only assume that within the school systems you have worked in that job protectionism was never an issue. It is Not all about self-confidence and professionalism, especially when you are thrown in among uneducated employees that are unqualified for their positions. They get very angry at anyone who might have the audacity to suggest improvements to the way they have been doing things ‘forever’.

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