The College Degree Myth: Part II

The controversial conservative scholar Charles Murray raised the question of whether a liberal arts education should be abandoned altogether except for those with the leisure and resources to engage in learning as a manner of self-enlightenment rather than any practical matter such as finding a job or learning a marketable skill. Murray goes on to suggest, in his book Real Education, that perhaps we should declare the brick-and-mortar college obsolete for most purposes it now claims to serve. Perhaps Murray was writing satirically to show the deleterious nature of turning our institutions of higher education into mere technical schools, but for community colleges he could be on to something.

At a minimum we should consider the argument made by liberal arts advocate Peter Augstine Lawler that, “[m]aybe we should abandon the pretense that the B.A. is the admission ticket to the world of most white-collar work.” I would add to this, that we should abandon the pretense that most B.A.’s prepare students to compete in a globalized market where many jobs are shipped overseas or prepare students for the jobs that are not outsourced.

At the heart of the argument that courses in the social sciences, liberal arts, and humanities should be required for all students—even those not seeking a degree—is the idea that an educated citizenry is required for a proper functioning republic, that only a citizenry with the proper amount of the proper education can facilitate a properly ordered regime. Perhaps this argument does have some merit, but with the standardization of college textbooks and curriculum, any hope to bestow the correct moral character upon a citizenry through our schools of higher education has fallen flat. Multiple-choice exams and $200 textbooks with CD-ROMs do not encourage deep, penetrating analysis. A "liberal education" provides the student with real precision in the use of language and real knowledge of what’s required for moral choices. Anyone who attends a normal liberal arts course in the modern university will notice these goals absent from the instruction.

At the community college level we are doing an even worse job of providing a proper liberal education, even though we require students to take liberal arts courses under the guise of providing them with the lessons necessary to be good citizens. In an article in The New Atlantis, Matthew Crawford, author of Shop Class as Soulcraft, acknowledges that education is an inherently individual enterprise in which learning does not occur unless the student is persuaded that what they are being taught is valuable. Students at a community college, on average, do not have the leisure or the desire to take classes for abstract reasons. Some may, and we should encourage them, but many do not and we should serve them as well. Many of the students at a community college are there because their lives demand they receive a particular class or skill in order to advance their career or start a new one.

Community colleges need to recognize that it is not necessarily a degree that gives a person better earning potential, but rather marketable skills that will get students the jobs they want.

Tom Pauken, formerly of the Texas Workforce Commission and now gubernatorial candidate, echoes this sentiment, “[t]he time has come to return to an educational model which recognizes the value of career education and encourages the young people of Texas to have such learning opportunities at the high school and post-secondary school levels… We have accepted for too long this misguided notion that everyone should go to a four-year university. That flies in the face of reality and human nature. We have different talents and different abilities. Let’s design a school finance and accountability system which recognizes that and re-establishes the importance of skills training to provide young Texans with terrific career opportunities."

Community colleges need to work with the state legislature, private companies, community organizations, and non-profits to fund and provide students with the skills they want and need even if it does not culminate in a degree.

Also read The College Degree Myth: Part I


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