It’s no news to anyone that higher education is under pressure to adapt. Some of the pressure comes from within the university, from either a social-sciency direction (like the book Academically Adrift), or from a humanistic direction (like Menand’s Marketplace of Ideas). These are intelligent, well-intentioned, and interesting critiques of the current ideals and methods of education, and they should be taken seriously. The university is what it is because it grew to be that way over the past few centuries, and it is reasonable to ask whether it needs to change – maybe even dramatically – to meet the needs of our changed and changing society. Okay, okay; this I get, and I support.
But then there’s also pressure coming from another direction, and this pressure is big and nasty, and it puzzles me. This other direction is political. Headline after headline suggests that whenever state politicians turn their attention to higher education, they eagerly propose all manner of ill-formed, misguided ideas. Mostly, the proposals end up pointing toward the goal of turning all colleges and universities into vocational schools, or at least schools funded only by measures of vocational success. Get rid of tenure, get rid of graduate programs in the liberal arts, get rid of majors that can’t demonstrate exactly how they are helping young people get jobs.
Most recently, the National Governor’s Association urged states to wean their universities from relying upon “a broad, liberal-arts style education.” But if states really are interested in producing what employers want and need, this is precisely the wrong direction to go. (For further discussion, see Debra Humphreys’s brief post here, and all the research that has gone into AACU’s “Liberal Education and America’s Promise” project.)
So state policy makers are not listening to business communities. My bet is they’re not listening to constituencies either. I don’t know this for sure; I’m basing this only on the case of my own state, where (from what I can gather) legislators had to back down from making truly draconian cuts to higher ed only out of fear of not being re-elected. So, by appearance, state legislators are trying to mold higher ed without consulting either business leaders or the public, or any available data.
Thus my question: who are these people? Did they go to college? If so, what tragedy did they undergo? Did they, as a class, encounter only wretched and boorish liberal arts professors? I’m guessing that the lawmakers must be, on average, around 55 years old. That would mean they were going to college, on average, in the late 70s. What was happening on college campuses then? Was that the era of “stupid and boorish” humanities professors? Or was it that they followed up their undergraduate experience with some of the early, clumsy MBA programs, which may have twisted their thinking? What is it that is hampering their recognition, seemingly enjoyed by everyone else, that there is genuine value in understanding one’s culture, its history, big ideas, literature in other languages, poetry, and the arts? I really am puzzled.