The abject idiocy of certain people who claim to speak for the public good continues to baffle me.
Late last week, veteran journalist M.D. Kittle wrote a pig-ignorant screed on Wisconsin Reporter, a regional website affiliated with right-wing umbrella group Watchdog.org. Kittle inveighed against any reforms of higher education that persisted in requiring any liberal arts core, insisting that anything other than job skills doesn’t comport with the Wisconsin Idea, a guiding principle of Wisconsin’s higher education system.
I’m accustomed to students complaining about liberal arts requirements. A classmate of mine mocked his additional history prerequisite as a mere money-making racket, a demonstrably nonsensical claim at a land grant university, where tuition barely scratches the surface of costs borne by taxes and endowments. As a teacher, I recall one student bellyaching: “Why study math? I’ll never need to factor polynomials for the rest of my life.”
Kittle takes this complaint, which I understand from students—who by definition don’t recognize their own best interests—and extends it to truly ridiculous ends:
The escalating cost of higher education is due in no small part to an outmoded liberal arts belief that forces computer science majors to take Lithuanian pottery or some other course in order to obtain a degree that is supposed to say the student has the skills to do the job at hand. At the end of the day, it’s safe to say IBM and Microsoft don’t give a damn whether their employees can operate a kiln.You’re right. Employers don’t care if new hires possess such skills. And, other than arts majors, only an idiot would take such minutely specialized courses. Except at the most high-aspiring research universities, you’ll have difficulty finding anyone who even offers such particular courses to undergraduates. And anybody stuffing their CV with such esoteric subspecialties deserves the ding such choices attract.
Conservatives, like those who run Watchdog.org, formerly advocated restoring firm liberal arts curricula to contemporary universities. The National Review editorial board openly endorsed toughening core studies when Jesse Jackson was organizing protests against “Western Culture” courses. What happened? When did the American Right decide against upholding traditional standards in higher education?
Only in America do families send youth to universities to achieve job skills. America has a highly regarded network of well-developed trade schools, which leaders like President Obama have advocated strengthening. And well they should. While university degree holders have greater lifetime earning potential, trade school graduates have greater immediate earning potential. Tradespeople with associate’s degrees can earn enough, right away, to start paying bills and raising families.
Yet people like Kittle, and the students he cites, want the prestige associated with university credentials. They just don’t want that boring old university education. Rather than elevating themselves to the complexity of university standards, they want universities lowered to mere skills training facilities. Their desire for a la carte education treats universities like shopping malls, and professors as service providers, not mentors or caregivers.
Worse, this attitude is crushingly passive. The desire for mere skills training reduces education to the mere transmission of information from one brain to another, an approach that provably doesn't work. Moreover, students claim they want skills training, but I know they don’t. When I tried lecturing my students, their eyes visibly glazed. When I engaged in dialog and asked questions without obviously correct answers, they came alive again.
Students, by nature, don’t know what they want and need. Important concepts reveal themselves only laterally, often in surprising ways. As I've written before, we never study topics for their own sake. Music is beautiful, but music also relies upon strict mathematical relationships; music is math made tangible. Likewise, literature is a compressed form of thinking, and the ability to comprehend literature is, manifestly, the ability to have empathy.
And, yes, Lithuanian pottery is a stupid course. Besides art majors, only somebody unthinking would take that class. But art history courses provide introductory studies in complicated visual communication, absolutely essential for engineers, physicists, and other skilled professionals who deal in spatial relationships. Just because some twenty-year-old doesn’t grasp why liberal studies doesn’t matter, doesn’t excuse adults indulging their ignorance.
Students who only study their job eventually do their job exactly like everyone else. Employers treasure college grads because they can break the mold. But libertarians like Kittle don’t want such individuality. In reducing education to job training, Kittle by extension reduce schools to industrial parts manufacturing. And those parts are students. I’d consider that sufficient reason to be outraged.