Majoring in philosophy? More power to you
Republican Gov. Pat McCrory is trying to temper disparaging remarks he made early last week about the value of a liberal arts education. He certainly needs to, and while he’s at it he should assure this state’s citizens that he understands the value of our university system.
In an interview with Bill Bennett — the education secretary under Ronald Reagan who has become a conservative pundit on political and social issues (and who has a degree in philosophy, by the way) — McCrory said the university system should be funded “not based on butts in seats but on how many of those butts can get jobs.” He also said we only need so many philosophy majors, and that the state should not continue to subsidize arcane courses that don’t lead to employment: “If you want to take gender studies that’s fine, go to a private school and take it,” McCrory told Bennett during the interview. “But I don’t want to subsidize that if that’s not going to get someone a job.”
Despite McCrory’s statements, universities should not become, and never were meant to be, job factories. That’s not their mission. We have a community college system for that. And, those who attend universities can major in fields like engineering, nursing, teaching and a multitude of other fields that lead directly to jobs. But tying the education system too closely to the needs of the job market smacks of social engineering — this many widgets will take engineering, this many will become teachers — and will not produce grads with the entrepreneurial creativity and ingenuity that truly drive the American economy.
And I’m not sure exactly how you measure how many of those “butts can get jobs.” It took me 10 years to settle into a career, and I’m sure that’s not so different from a lot of liberal arts majors.
In 1982 I walked across the stage at Varsity Gymnasium at Appalachian State University and was handed a diploma certifying that I had completed the requirements to earn a Bachelor of Arts in English literature. A few hours later my parents drove out of town, my roommates all went their different ways to their own friends and parties, and I found myself alone in my apartment. With a bit of melancholy and angst, I wondered just what in the hell I was going to do with one of those liberal arts degrees — and a minor in philosophy, thank you Gov. McCrory.
Today, I have no idea where that piece of paper called a diploma resides. It may have become fire starter on one of the cold nights during the next few years as I wandered from job to job and town to town, barely making ends meet. At one point, I ended up back in Boone, enrolling for a second degree and working for friends who had started a construction company.
I never finished that second degree, but I did become a competent carpenter. In those days there were a lot of tool-belt-wearing framing carpenters who had master’s degrees and PhD dissertations that were gathering dust in closets. We often found ourselves discussing subjects like German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s theory of Superman or John Milton’s poetry as we hammered and sawed our way toward a cold beer at the end of the day and a paycheck at the end of the week.
It would be several years before I found a career in the newspaper business, but never once did it occur to me that my liberal arts degree was a mistake. In fact, during those years between graduation and finally settling into a career at age 28, my liberal arts degree led me to take the Graduate Records Exam, consider law school, apply for and get accepted to a graduate school I then chose not to attend, take the test to become an officer in the U.S. Coast Guard, get accepted for and turn down a teaching position in China, and take numerous trips to parts of this country and the world that some people never get to see. I was still curious, just like when deciding that a liberal arts education was what would make my university time relevant and motivate me to study hard.
Today’s job market demands critical thinking and adaptability. Most grads will hold six or seven career type jobs before they retire. It’s true many industries can’t find skilled workers to fill jobs, but many other companies suffer because they can’t find the intelligent, creative people needed to compete in today’s workplace. That’s where liberal arts grads come into play.
It’s sad that too many conservatives today have forgotten their roots. McCrory’s reference during the Bennett interview to the “educational elite” brings to mind the anti-intellectual side of the GOP, the side that one writer said led to the party’s infatuation with the likes of Sarah Palin. Some may recall that it was Palin who “famously could not name which newspapers she read,” as if that was an admirable trait. Labels like those used by McCrory explain nothing but provide convenient talking points. I’ll take the likes of George Will or the late William F. Buckley over that side of the GOP any day.
McCrory blundered. He later said he had never criticized a liberal arts education, and I for one hope he was just pandering to Bennett and his Tea Party audience rather than speaking from the heart.