Quick thoughts on liberal arts funding

North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory echos recent sentiments from Republican governors about liberal arts education (emphasis mine):

“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?”

“If you want to take gender studies that’s fine. Go to a private school, and take it,” McCrory said. “But I don’t want to subsidize that if that’s not going to get someone a job.”


From the Century Foundation Blog, S. Michael Gaddis objects:

Perhaps more importantly, these plans assume that education is solely about the bottom line of a salary or a job. Certainly the significant rise in the number of individuals pursuing higher education over time has been fueled by young people looking to lock in their financial success with a credential. But there is more to a college degree than purely the economic side, and even students realize that. Some of our greatest leaders and scholars, figures such as Thomas Jefferson and Horace Mann, believed that broad education for the masses was an important part of citizenship democracy, freedom, and happiness. Higher education builds good citizens by promoting critical thinking and teamwork, and providing valuable social experiences.

Well yes, to be sure, higher education can be all those things. That should be good enough reason to justify nondiscriminatory state funding. I just can’t escape the feeling that there is a better argument against this line of thought beyond “Famous so and so was a liberal arts major” mixed with bromides on citizenship and life experiences.

I haven’t really settled on what that argument should be, but here some of my initial thoughts:

— Perhaps the first step is acknowledging that Republican criticism in this regard is not on whether a diverse collegiate curriculum is socially meritorious. So counter-arguments on the more abstract positive principles of a well-rounded education (while basically true) is largely besides the point.

— This opposition can be seen as having two (related) facets; one of ideology and one of collective priorities. The former represents a socio-cultural disdain for non-business education, as famously espoused by Rick Santorum. Yet here we can also refer to McCrory:

“We’ve really created this elitist cult of hierarchy where people who know how to do things, do things with their hands are looked down upon,” Bennett said.

I can neither confirm nor deny whether my current college education has a secret induction ceremony to be accepted into an elitist hierarchy that indoctrinates its members into hatred of blue collar workers. But you get the point otherwise. McCrory’s viewpoint is well-entrenched among cultural conservatives who simultaneously fetishize the blue-collar (and undoubtedly Christian) experience while promoting economic polices to ensure fewer future generations will enjoy that experience.

The collective priorities aspect is related; primarily because if you view liberal arts departments as state-funded liberal cults then you’d be less inclined to believe it is in society’s collective interest to subsidize such a deplorable mindset. Thus McCrory et al. believe the only worthwhile use of a public dollar is one that benefits business — specifically in this instance their labor needs.

— More broadly, we do need to decide if public universities should only be job factories for the perennial interests of industries unwilling to self-invest in training. I would like to think we can be more than that for rather esoteric reasons (see the aforementioned platitudes).

Now to some extent we’re already seeing these conservative sentiments materialize in university curriculum and recruitment prioritization of majors that have strong labor market demands. This includes STEM fields, to be sure, but also industry partnerships at the two-year college level. In this sense we may be seeing the effects of profit-maximization in providing licensing and training for specific blue-collar fields in mining and transportation (at least in my experience, and this is largely excluding the same phenomenon in health industry services) in face of state budget cuts. This isn’t to say that these efforts are not without merit on their own, but that they can still be viewed as a net-loss if such efforts coincide with the elimination of other academic disciplines.

I should probably stop there before I go on a tangent about normative pressures in institutional isomorphism and the bureaucratization of education in general. Suffice it to say such normative pressures may be fulfilling conservative wishes on the direction of higher education without making splashes about the uselessness of becoming fluent in Swahili.

— In the end I really think this is more about funding affordable education, period. But as I wrote earlier these are just some of my underlying thoughts on the subject.

*As an aside, there’s probably another argument for viewing this as an extension of Mike Konczal’s “Slow Death of Public Higher Education,” but unfortunately I don’t have the time to structure that framework.





One response to “Quick thoughts on liberal arts funding

  1. Pingback: The idea of “marketable” degrees | Proximal Development·

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