Tuesday, February 05, 2013

In defense of a dumb remark

Last week on the morning program of William Bennett, former Secretary of Education and now radio talk show host, the newly elected governor of North Carolina argued that he wanted to change the way universities in the state are funded.   He commented “So I’m going to adjust my education curriculum to what business and commerce needs to get our kids jobs as opposed to moving back in with their parents after they graduate with debt," McCrory said, adding, "What are we teaching these courses for if they're not going to help get a job?"    The answer to his last question is not as simple as either he or his critics imagine.

Before I discuss the Governor's remarks I must comment that I have never been much of a fan of Bill Bennett.   I believe he was a ham handed Secretary of Education who often betrayed conservative principles in search of power for the office.   While I think much of his writing has been interesting, I am not sure his radio talk show is a place to get out ideas as complex as what should higher education be doing.

I found myself thinking the Governor's ideas were a bit off - but not completely.  Immediately, a part of the educational establishment went bananas.   An editorial in the Technician sputtered that "the Governor is on the cusp of singlehandedly destroying the UNC school system." 

The Charlotte Observer said- "The truth is, university graduates ought to be prepared enough to consider more than one option. And the idea of a good education is to teach people to think."  The Observer also trotted out two former political aides to Newt Gingrich and Ronald Reagan who argued that the Governor's remarks were a "violation" of conservative principles.

I have a mixed reaction to the comments of both sides.   First, I think they lack nuance.   The Governor missed some real things that are going on which support his general idea and the critics hyped up too much about what the Governor actually said.  There is plenty of research that suggests that the effects of college seem to be a lot less than advertised.   Employers complain that the very nature of the liberal arts (to get people to think critically) is lacking in many graduates.   

Second,  I am a big advocate of the liberal arts writ large but in many implementations become an opponent.   The Governor made specific reference to a couple of disciplines which, from my perspective, are of questionable value.   Some areas of study are not really trying to find out more about an area but have become opportunities to advocate for a particular point of view.   That is true in some of the new fields, many have the word "studies" after their name are engulfed in a veil of political correctness. But that problem is not limited to the "studies" disciplines - one need only look at the diversions in the Modern Language Association to see that the problem is pervasive in many of the liberal arts.  At the same time I benefitted from breadth offered by the liberal arts and appreciate that some of the material I thought was worthless at 18 has become more valuable to me over time.   

Third, I am skeptical of straight vocational training.  Many politicians argue that we should be training more people for specific jobs.   While skills (including both manual and intellectual) are important the process of training may be a bit more difficult than most people think.    A good example came to me in the early 1970s when I was working for a project in Washington, D.C.   I visited one of the best technical training schools in the country in Oklahoma.   As I was doing the tour, I noticed a room with a set of students learning how to run key punch machines.  I asked the president of the institution, why that was important - I had just installed a set of magnetic tape typewriters (the first word processors) in a unit of the White House and thought that this new technology might make punch cards obsolete.   He responded "NCR offered us a bunch of machines and we could not refuse."   With advances in technology it is hard to predict what kinds of technical skills will be necessary even five years from now.

The key to any kind of education, be it technical or university, is to assure that graduates are able to respond to an ever changing environment.  That means a lot more writing, a lot more exercises in critical thinking and perhaps less involvement with majors that sound good on paper.   But the strength of our system of higher education is that we have a rich mix of opportunities.
Read more here: http://www.newsobserver.com/2013/01/30/2644482/mccrory-misfires-in-his-comments.html#storylink=cpy

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