Modified Thu, Jan 31, 2013 04:04 AM
Let’s hope that Gov. Pat McCrory, now in the throes of his first legislative session as chief executive, just got a little carried away in a radio interview with bombastic Bill Bennett, former education secretary under Ronald Reagan and a media voice from the Republican right wing. Bennett is a hunter; his game of choice is pointy-headed liberals he deems to be in control of American higher education.
Tuesday morning, he lured Gov. McCrory into the duck blind and loaned him a bird gun.
Sounding very much like Bennett himself, McCrory said, “I think some of the educational elite have taken over our education where we are offering courses that have no chance of getting people jobs.”
Bennett had made light, or perhaps that’s dark, of gender studies courses at UNC-Chapel Hill, a top school offering a broad array of courses in the sciences and also in … careful now … liberal arts. The governor, as The News & Observer’s Under the Dome reported, seemed eager to cast his lot with Burly Bill, saying, “That’s a subsidized course. If you want to take gender studies, that’s fine, go to a private school and take it. But I don’t want to subsidize that if that’s not going to get someone a job.”
Whoa. If all courses in higher education, at the public schools anyway, have to pass some sort of quantitative test to justify their existence, curricula may be changing minute to minute. But there’s really no way to do that.
Links to workplace
The governor seems to be saying that all courses should be aimed at the job market. Leaving aside for a minute the impracticality of that idea, consider that English majors go into brokerage houses, and business majors go to the Peace Corps and, these days, many people are working outside their academic specialties. A course of study in college reflects, or should, a well-balanced approach that will give any student a broad-based education with a major of particular interest. But that’s no guarantee that the student will follow that major into the workplace, or should.
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.
But the governor seemed, on Bennett’s show at least, to believe that higher education funding should be dictated by the expressed needs of the business community. He said, for example, that, “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,” he said.
He even went so far as to say funding for the UNC system and for the state’s highly respected community colleges would be “not based on how many butts in seats but how many of those butts can get jobs.”
That sort of “colorful” comment doesn’t exactly polish North Carolina’s image as a progressive state. And it rests on a fallacy that what’s lacking aren’t jobs, but qualifications. Tell that to the state’s unemployed CPAs, people with MBAs and lawyers. And tell it to the community college graduates who got trained in technical skills and still can’t find work.
Chapel Hill bashing
It’s hard to figure what gallery McCrory is playing to here, but his comments sound like gratuitous criticism of the university system and perhaps that bastion of liberal thought, UNC-Chapel Hill. The university has long been a target of conservatives (Jesse Helms loved to go a few rounds with Chapel Hill on a regular basis). And it’s true as well that on almost every campus, there are courses of questionable merit. But a university education is in part about taking risks here and there.
Trying to link academic funding to the ever-changing – and currently very tight – job market sounds like a formula for trouble. It also sounds like a governor and a General Assembly taking charge of university curricula, which would constitute, liberal or conservative, an infringement on academic freedom.
The governor would be wise to consider that the UNC system has produced a well-educated work force over many generations and represents an investment that delivers big returns to the state in many ways. The system is working. The governor should not succumb to political opportunists who want us to believe it isn’t.
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