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A story today in Inside Higher Education reports on North Carolina governor Patrick McCrory’s recent criticism of the liberal arts and his state’s flagship universities. McCrory thinks public education money needs to be directed to programs that graduate students who get jobs. He suggests that neither he nor the citizens of North Carolina need to support those programs and disciplines in N.C.’s public universities that turn out students who can’t don’t find work pretty quickly following graduation. Go to college to get a job.
Now I don’t think it irresponsible of the chief executive of the Tar Heel State to be concerned about public spending and to want to explore avenues for the efficient delivery of a high quality education. Who could argue with that? Education is expensive, and I don’t doubt that there is a good deal of fluff in a many areas in the N.C. publics (and maybe in the N.C. privates too, for that matter). And the governor may have in mind some complicated efficiency formula that considers not only whether graduates are getting jobs, but how much it costs the state to educate the students in those programs from which students get jobs. So it could turn out that he is considering cutting even programs from which people get jobs if it takes too much of the citizens’ money to prepare students for those jobs. Maybe you can pretty easily find work as an astrophysicist following graduation, but if it costs the state an investment of a couple of million dollars to produce each astrophysicist, the state might be justified in letting someone else educate them. And, it may be that although the overall number of philosophy majors who are employed one year after graduation is small, given how little money it takes to educate philosophers, philosophy programs may actually stack up pretty well against basketball and football programs once all the costs are considered.
Or, for all I know, the governor, himself a graduate of a small N.C. liberal arts college, has a complex liberal arts-ish theory that the educational roles and responsibilities of the colleges in the private sector differ from public colleges and universities. He may think, for example, that public universities and private colleges have different aims and that the state of North Carolina (like all states) needs private colleges to do important educating that the states are not willing and able to provide (or provide efficiently) in their public institutions. The governor could believe that the state of North Carolina really needs folks who have thought long and hard about the value of beauty, say, but that the privates can do a much better job than the publics when it comes to educating about such values as beauty, goodness, religion, and so on. There are stranger theories than this out there.
Or it may be that the governor is far more Republican than even he is aware—Republican in the Platonic sense. Perhaps he believes public education, education for the state’s masses, is rightly aimed at preparing the working class to work well, and that the elite group of philosopher-rulers, and only this group, requires a liberal arts education. As long as there are liberal arts colleges around it saves the state a great deal of money to have them educate the philosopher-rulers. With an appropriate division of labor, the state concentrates on the education of the working class, perhaps.
So I’m not sure exactly what the governor believes, and what really lies behind his criticism of the liberal arts, but if I were a citizen of North Carolina I would be concerned. The governor seems to think that the sole virtue of the state’s citizens is their employability. This and his apparent suggestion that being employed is the necessary and sufficient condition for human flourishing is troubling. The state does have an interest in employed citizens, to be sure, especially having subsidized their education; their tax money is essential if the state is to execute many of its duties. But just as a good person knows that there are some jobs one ought not to do, no matter how good the pay, so a good state knows better than to permit companies to scrape off the tops of its mountains just because employment is a good thing. Working and earning money are, at least typically, pretty good things. But they are not the only good things and not the best of good things. All of us aspire to more than a good job. We want to love and to be loved. We want to understand things. We want to play. We want to rest.
Some of us want to figure out whether we should quit our jobs in order to take care of our elderly parents. Some of us want to know whether there is any point in fighting again with our teenage kid about whether she is spending too much time playing videogames when she could be practicing trumpet. Some of us would like to take lesser jobs so we can volunteer more, at church, at the local soup kitchen, with our political parties. What should we do? These are hard questions, questions that involve clashes of values and clashes of different types of values. How we answer them and whether we answer them well depends, to a great extent, on who we are, on who we’ve become.
And whoever we are, we are not just workers. Discovering who we are, discovering who we want to be, is no easy thing, especially when technologies of connectedness make it very easy to be multiple characters, to be many people rather than an integrated self. A liberal arts education may not be necessary for developing that identity and character. Nor may it be sufficient. But, at its best, a liberal arts education can remind a generation greatly in need of this reminding, that our employment is not the only thing we ought to care about, that you can get a job and lose your soul.