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.
Professor of Old Testament at Campbell University Divinity School in Buies Creek, North Carolina, and the Contributing Editor and Curriculum Writer at Good Faith Media.