A Proposal to End Public University Education

I’ve been involved with college admission and college counseling for 21 years now and I’ve read many depressing things. If I paid attention to all of them I’d have to find another career: universities are terrible, high schools don’t educate, students don’t learn, and on and on. You can probably fill in the headlines and even write the stories. Sometimes I wonder if I’m doing the first-generation students I work with a favor by encouraging them to go to college. Of course I always say yes, but add forlorn job prospects to the litany of misfeasance schools are accused of every day and it’s a wonder anyone in the U.S. can read a fast food restaurant menu, much less work in one.

Even with all this doom and gloom, a recently released report from the National Governor’s Association sent an icy shiver down my spine. It’s summarized as follows:

Colleges need to do a better job of aligning their programs with the economic needs of their states, says a new report by the National Governors Association’s Center for Best Practices. The report highlights steps taken in Minnesota, North Carolina, Ohio, and Washington State, and makes recommendations on how lawmakers can persuade [colleges] to move beyond their traditional emphasis on a broad liberal-arts education to thinking more about skills for specific jobs. It suggests that colleges use “rigorous labor-market data” to set goals and get more input from local businesses on the skills students need.

The NGA’s position seems to be that colleges (the report focuses on public institutions, but I think the ramifications are broader than that) should focus on turning out workers, not thinkers. What’s needed is a solid corps of willing drones who will do what business and the economy tell them to do, rather than thoughtful individuals who might raise a stink about being exploited, hired or fired at will, or forced to keep quiet about shady practices in order to keep those jobs.

Rather than take their inspiration from the great writers, thinkers, scientists, and philosophers of history, the NGA suggests that colleges rely on ‘”rigorous labor-market data'” and the instructions of “local businesses” to form their curricula. This position proposes that colleges simply train students for jobs, jettisoning anything that might interfere with that, including that pesky and perhaps commie/subversive “broad liberal-arts education.” We need workers, not thinkers!

In a nutshell, the NGA suggests turning public institutions into conduits for business, letting it dictate the requirements for “educating” students. But it doesn’t really want them educated, it wants them trained. And it doesn’t respect university values of independent thought, curiosity, exploration, or enlightened, disinterested discussion. It insists that universities respect the values of business, which, as we have seen graphically in the last few years, have very little to do with these qualities, which might restrain some of the worst excesses of winner-take-all capitalism.

The NGA’s report isn’t subtle in its disdain for liberal arts values:

Given the traditional independence of institutions of higher education—and their long-established emphasis on broad liberal arts education—getting such institutions to embrace a more active role in workforce development will not be easy.

Let me translate: “It’ll be tough to get these damned universities to toe the line when it comes to what we businesses want. They are too free-thinking and produce people who challenge what we do. If they’d stop letting kids read Marx and Orwell and all those other freakin’ lefties maybe we could get some workers who won’t bother us as we ravage the world and the economy for profit. We’re gonna have to smack ’em around first” The report basically asks state governments to allow businesses to dictate the terms of education, turning colleges into elaborate training grounds for corporations.

Don’t get me wrong, I think college students should be prepared to get to work once they’re out of school, but I also think they should be learning some things about their world in ways that enable them to question it and suggest alternatives. They should have some contact with beautiful literature, music, and art and be taught by professors who have interesting and perhaps even “radical” things to say. They should find the beginnings of their own voices in college, not simply be stamped out like widgets. This is not simply decorative, but adaptive–good thinkers are able to face change and understand complexity. They can take initiative and create original ways to do things. Widgets just do as they’re told, and when circumstances change, they fail. Is that really where the NGA wants us to go?

I feel especially angry when I think of first-generation college students who may end up in these brave new universities–they may never have the chance to explore intellectual opportunities before being sucked into the maw of the business world. While their more privileged counterparts can still revel in thoughtful debate over ideas and theories, less fortunate students will have to put their heads down and trudge through a “curriculum” that has no room for anything but what an end-user will need. For a particularly graphic illustration of this idea, watch Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, the 1927 silent film remarkably prescient in its depiction of a sullen, cowed, and anonymous work force laboring mechanically deep within the Earth while the lighthearted, romantic, bookish, and leisurely ruling class enjoys life in its city in the sky.

Turning colleges and universities into servants of business will destroy them as institutions that can produce ideas, original research, challenges to our assumptions, and so much more. It would be a tragedy for the states to abdicate their responsibilities (something, unfortunately, already well underway) to education itself as a public good. We do not need more drones, we need more thinkers, more writers, and more challenges to “business as usual” in order to remain a vital and creative society. This report suggests we abandon the original goals of the Morrill Acts of 1862 and 1890, which were to “teach agriculture, military tactics, and the mechanic arts, as well as classical studies, so that members of the working classes could obtain a liberal, practical education.”

Note especially the joining of “liberal” and “practical” as modifiers of “education.” Surely there’s room for both in a society that claims to prize individuality and progress.

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About Will Dix

I am currently writing a book about college admission. I'm interested in the intersection of the college process and American culture. I attended Amherst College in the 1970s, taught high school English and theater at The Hill School in the '80s, returned to Amherst in the '90s as an admission dean, and began the '00s as a college counselor at the University of Chicago Laboratory School. I then joined Chicago Scholars as Program Director. Currently, I blog about college admission for Forbes.com. I also help community organizations serving low income students understand the college admission process so more students can consider gaining access to higher education. I have a few private college counseling clients that I take by referral only. The views expressed in this blog are mine alone.
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3 Responses to A Proposal to End Public University Education

  1. Pingback: A Proposal to End Public University Education « College Counseling … - Enlightened

  2. David Carbone says:

    Will, we have not spoken recently, but I cannot agree with you more. I have a daughter at Amherst and another at Hampshire in support of that cause.

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    • Will Dix says:

      Hi David– Great to hear from you. It’s a crisis, I think. I would hate to see the essential privatization of public education and its narrowing to simply feeding workers into the great maw of industry. I hope that liberal arts institutions like our alma mater can help oppose this trend.

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