Thursday, January 31, 2013

An education is about more than a job

Gov. Pat McCrory wants the colleges supported by North Carolina taxpayers to concentrate on educational fare that will win jobs for students. The state should judge and fund higher education based not on "butts in seats" but by "butts in jobs," the governor says. Liberal arts majors, he said, should not be subsidized by the state.

As a liberal arts major, I should be offended. As a liberal arts major, McCrory should feel offended by himself.

Higher education is more than vocational training, although the journalism courses I took (for half of my two majors) provided a sort of vocational training. I learned to write basic news stories; to edit news copy; to write opinion pieces such as editorials and literary reviews; to avoid libel, invasion of privacy and other legal pitfalls. I learned a lot more on the job, but I can't imagine a vocation where you wouldn't continue learning on the job. My other major, English, prepared me to write well, to do research, to appreciate great literature that has stood the test of time, to think about the important issues of life, to better understand people and what motivates them.

The business majors I knew seemed less prepared, it seemed to me, for a career. They crunched numbers, they learned about management theory and economics, the "dismal science," which seems to reverse course with each new theory or trend. The good students in this major, of which McCrory would approve, would go into a management training program at some bank or corporation and learn some practical skills they missed in the classroom.

Higher education should prepare students for a career, but it also should prepare them for life. A good liberal arts education can do both. Knowledge of people, which is learned in the liberal arts, can be a manager's best asset. An appreciation of art, literature, philosophy and religion can give meaning and light to one's personal and business life.

It's true that academic majors have proliferated in the past generation to include many impractical, perhaps even useless, majors, such as "gender studies," "women's studies," or "racial politics." These narrowly focused majors are not the broad-based overview of a traditional liberal arts education, and, as has been seen in UNC's Afro-American Studies Department, they can lead to academic fraud.

What critics of higher education often miss is that education is not limited to four years or six or eight. Learning is a lifetime commitment. A good college education will prepare a student to continue to learn for decades after the diploma has been hung on the wall. The vocational training that aims only at getting a job fails to prepare for change in an ever-changing world.

Imagine McCrory's dream world where students learn specific job skills. Our universities could have been teaching some students how to repair typewriters, others how to develop photographic film, and others how to take dictation. And today they'd all be jobless because the jobs for which they trained have disappeared.

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