I’ve been thinking a lot about higher education, of late. One fact is clear. The enormous debt students incur upon graduation makes getting a well-paid job a necessity and that necessity has called into question the value of liberal art studies. As Governor Rick Scott of Florida recently declared, “We don’t need a lot more anthropologists in this state.” (“Course Corrections” by Thomas Frank, Harper’s, 10/13 pg. 13.) His point was that STEM courses (science, technology, engineering, math) should be the prime focus of today’s universities. That’s where the jobs appear to be.
Naturally, comments like the Governor’s raise hackles in the hallowed halls of the humanities. With well-worn clichés, professors champion the value of critical thinking and having a broad perspective on life. But as Thomas Frank’s essay in Harper’s points out, neither the pragmatists nor the idealists are being candid. For a start, no shortage of STEM graduates exists and in fact, the current glut has driven down wages. (Ibid, pg. 10) Conversely, liberal arts departments don’t need future philosophers. What they need are enrollment numbers that will allow instructors to keep their jobs. To be honest, the entire system feeds upon student debt with its underpinning of government subsidies. As long as money continues to flow from that spigot, universities have no incentive to rein in costs.
Early in the 20th century, having an 8th grade education served workers well. They could earn a good wage in the trades or on factory assembly lines. Universities were the purview of academics, future doctors and other professionals. At the end of World War II higher education became accessible to G. I. s returning home from the war. To give thanks, the nation paid their tuition costs. The gift was also a means to delay a sudden rush of job applicants into a weakened economy.
I have no evidence to support my theory, but I suspect this is the point in our history when education and jobs became linked in our minds. Though a child at the time, I recall reading a sign in a restaurant window: Dishwasher wanted. Must have high school diploma.
I’m sorry for the students caught in a debate between powers with vested interests. I’m sorry neither side has done much to curb tuition costs. Worse, I fear that our sluggish economy has cast doubts on the value of higher learning. What’s happening to the young is a national disgrace. But I will add this one thought for the young to chew on. I never earned a dime by quoting Shakespeare but the ability to do so has proved to be priceless.
(Courtesy of readersupportednews.org)