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What N.C. Governor Needs to Learn about Education

North Carolina’s new governor has raised the ire of educators in the state’s university system by suggesting that the only purpose of higher education worth funding is training that will lead directly to jobs.
I suspect he’s not the only governor doing so these days.

In a radio interview with conservative talk show host Bill Bennett – who was President Reagan’s education secretary – Republican Gov. Pat McCrory said the state’s university system is controlled by an “educational elite” who offer too many courses of study, such as gender studies or philosophy, that don’t translate directly into a place in the workforce.

Funding for higher education should be “not based on how many butts in seats but how many of those butts can get jobs,” McCrory said. People who want to do gender studies should go to private colleges, he said.

The governor further complained that “two-thirds of my students are women” – while men who could be taking vocational training for “technical or mechanical or welding” jobs are on unemployment.

The actual percentage of female students, a community college spokesman told the News & Observer, is about 61 percent.

The patriarchal – or patronizing – tone encompassed in the phrase “my students” is telling, as is the implication that those unemployed men couldn’t be taking vocational courses if they wanted to.

McCrory complained that former “tech schools” were taken over by the elite and reshaped as “community colleges” because more educated people look down on people with technical skills.

The governor claimed that he believes in a liberal arts education, but his other comments did little to support that statement.

It is true, to an extent, that earning a college degree in the humanities does not set one up for a high-paying job in the same way that a degree in business or pharmacy would, or even an associate’s degree in auto mechanics – but job preparation is not the only, or even the primary, function of higher education.

When well done, a sound liberal arts education preserves important cultural understandings, instills a broad understanding of the world, and develops critical thinking skills that prepare society, as a whole, to better face the future.

Many people who earn degrees in the humanities end up in jobs that may not relate directly to their college coursework, but draw heavily from their broad base of knowledge, their analytic ability and their willingness to think for themselves.

Investing in education is an investment in our future: it’s about heads that think, not just butts with jobs.

The Greek philosopher Socrates was known to criticize the Athenian government’s grandiose and often misguided plans, urging the people of Athens to think for themselves rather than blindly follow their leaders.

In a city decimated by political blunders and bad leadership, the powers-that-be put the blame for their own failures on Socrates and sentenced him to death by poisoning with hemlock.

Will North Carolina’s renowned university system suffer a similar fate?

It’s tempting to suggest that part of the governor’s concern is that more highly educated men and women – especially those in the humanities – are more likely to be Democrats, and that he doesn’t want the state to subsidize a breeding ground for liberalism.

I don’t think that’s his primary concern, however.

The unabashedly pro-business governor really does want more people to get jobs and to be seen as the man responsible for helping create higher employment – but he’s pragmatic, too.

He knows that any sense of increased prosperity will translate into votes for whoever does the most effective job of taking the credit – and that could manufacture a political dynasty.

One of the clearest critiques of the governor’s views has come from fellow conservatives.

In a recent News & Observer column, Jonathan Riehl and Scot Faulkner, who both self-identify as conservatives, decried the anti-intellectualism fostered by some conservative blogs and talk-radio.

They also noted that a broad-based higher education serves the conservative cause rather than threatening it.

“As a political philosophy, conservatism is grounded in intellectual thought and deliberation,” they wrote. “The governor’s statements about education are therefore not only counterproductive but also anti-conservative.”

McCrory suggested that the state should focus on funding education programs designed to impart specific training for practical job skills.

Riehl and Faulkner responded by observing that, “ironically, the notion of colleges and universities as factories for job-performance smacks much more of leftist, socialist societies where individuals were not valued for their knowledge or perception but for their ability to perform tasks.”

If the ongoing debate is going to take place on a higher level than bumper stickers and political ads that pander lies or promote iron-hard ideologies without any real engagement, we need an education system designed, as Riehl and Faulkner wrote, “to give young students a broad-based knowledge that allows them to think about matters widely and deeply, to form their own opinions and find their place in society.”

That sounds a lot like Baptists arguing for soul competency and the priesthood of the believer – a thought worth careful consideration.

Tony Cartledge is associate professor of Old Testament at Campbell University Divinity School and contributing editor to Baptists Today, where he blogs.