Overdone assault on higher education

Jan. 30, 2013 @ 03:47 PM

Perhaps it was just the intoxicating air of being on national radio with former Secretary of Education Bill Bennett. Perhaps he got carried away.

Or, perhaps, Gov. Pat McCrory really believes what seemed a blunderbuss assault on higher education he delivered on Bennett’s show Tuesday.

Let’s be clear – our higher education model is ripe for examination.  Too few students enter colleges and universities, and too few of those who do graduate. And, especially in these past few economically straitened years, anecdotal evidence abounds that some of those who do finish cannot find employment commensurate with their costly educations.

Many higher-education institutions realize this, The University of North Carolina system itself is nearly finished rethinking its strategic plans, envisioning a greater emphasis on producing more graduates and a sharper focus on providing skills that will lead to employment.

But in tone and substance, McCrory seemed to go well beyond that – echoing what the website Inside Higher Education described as “statements made by a number of Republican governors – including those in Texas, Florida and Wisconsin – who have questioned the value of liberal arts instruction and humanities degrees at public colleges and universities. Those criticisms have started to coalesce into a potential Republican agenda on higher education, emphasizing reduced state funding, low tuition prices, vocational training, performance funding for faculty members, state funding tied to job placement in ‘high demand’ fields and taking on flagship institutions.”

Thomas Ross, president of the UNC system, responded to McCrory by noting the university’s strategic rethinking already underway. And he correctly cautioned that "the university’s value to North Carolina should not be measured by jobs filled alone."

Jan Boxill, chairwoman of the faculty at UNC, was even more direct.

“Education is more than just training people for jobs today,” she said. “We help students become problem solvers and creators for the jobs of the future.”

Perhaps Boxill was particularly sensitive because she is a philosophy lecturer. Philosophy and gender studies were specific targets of Bennett and McCrory’s disdain.

“How many Ph.Ds in philosophy do I have to subsidize?” Bennett asked, drawing agreement from McCrory.

If the question is whether philosophy degrees prepare students for jobs, Boxill had a rejoinder. Philosophy students often pursue careers in law, criminal justice, entrepreneurship and other fields, she told The Daily Tar Heel.

Other possibilities? Cabinet secretary, perhaps. Or national radio talk-show host.

Bill Bennett earned a Ph.D. in philosophy at the University of Texas at Austin.