Is ‘Get a Job’ the Purpose of College?

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker just made an unforced error.  He proposed—then backed away from—a change in the mission statement for the University of Wisconsin.  I admire Walker and view him as among the more attractive candidates for the Republican nomination.  And in that spirit, I’d like to offer him some friendly advice on a potentially troublesome issue.

Walker’s misstep was a piece of a budget proposal where he removed from the state code the words in the University of Wisconsin mission statement that committed the university to “search for truth” and “improve the human condition” and substituted “meet the state’s workforce needs.”  This proposed change instantly set off political reaction in Wisconsin and created a field day for leftist pundits.  Salon headlined the story, “Scott Walker’s Hilarious Screwup.”  Once again, a conservative politician tagged himself as an anti-intellectual ignoramus and a man for whom the idols of the marketplace trump every high-minded ideal.

Walker quickly backed off, and lamely explained the language as a “drafting error.”  But I am ready to assume with the critics that Walker himself signed off on the substitution and that he and some of those around him must have thought it was a good idea at the time.

It plainly wasn’t a good idea.  But the sneering from Walker’s progressive opponents doesn’t explain anything.  Those opponents have simply seized an opportunity to pose as defenders of the search for truth and the improvement of the human condition while casting Walker as a vulgar materialist.  Where have we heard that storyline before?

Reagan in ‘67

As it happens, just a few weeks ago, Dan Berrett, a senior reporter for the Chronicle of Higher Education, declared in “The Day the Purpose of College Changed” that on February 28, 1967, Ronald Reagan singlehandedly reduced college education from a “vehicle for intellectual development, for cultivating a flexible mind,” to a means to “prepare students for jobs.”

Reagan accomplished this neat trick, says Berrett, at a press conference a month into his first term as governor.  Asked about his proposed budget that trimmed some money from the University of California, Reagan explained that there would be “some belt-tightening” in all areas of state government but that he would do nothing “harmful to education.”  (The remarks are on pages six and seven of the transcript of the press conference.)

Then Reagan added, “But we do believe that there are certain intellectual luxuries that perhaps we could do without for a year or two without hurting the cause of education.”

A reporter asked him what he meant by “intellectual luxury,” and Reagan answered with a quip.  He mentioned a course at UC Davis “where they teach you to hang the Governor in effigy.  That in my mind is an intellectual luxury.  Of course, I may be prejudiced.”

The back-and-forth with the reporters continued, with Reagan giving several examples of college courses that seem trivial, and one—on repairing band instruments—that he said was “sort of subsidizing intellectual curiosity.”

That, for Berrett, is the smoking gun.  Governor Reagan, way back in 1967, treated “intellectual curiosity” as secondary.  Berrett recounts that the Los Angeles Times seized the phrase to editorialize against Reagan’s supposed philistine views:  “If a university is not a place where intellectual curiosity is to be encouraged, and subsidized, then it is nothing.”

Berrett, like the LA Times in 1967, sees this as all or nothing.  Reagan was not criticizing a frivolous or excessive expenditure, according to Berrett, but was “staking out a competing vision,” namely, “Learning for learning’s sake might be nice, but the rest of us shouldn’t have to pay for it.  A higher education should prepare students for jobs.”

Berrett’s explanation of what Reagan meant, however, is conjured from thin air.  Reagan himself said nothing like that in the press conference or, as far as I can tell, at any other time.

It is rhetorically convenient to set up a little polarity like this:  the good proponents of education for the sake of pure learning vs. the bad proponents of education for vulgar utilitarian ends.  One or the other.  This is, of course, the same trap into which Governor Walker has stumbled.

Higher Education Has Four Purposes, Not Two

Berrett and others like him who set up this either/or are badly mistaken.  Education is and always has been about both learning for learning’s sake and practical training—and two other things as well.  Higher education, at least since the time of Plato, has always had four basic purposes that tug in different directions: the pursuit of truth for its own sake (“intellectual curiosity”); preparation for practical life (“jobs”); the transmission of culture (“civilization”); and the shaping of good character (“citizenship”).  Sometimes these can be brought into balance, but usually they jar against each other.  Aristophanes, who favored the transmission of traditional culture, mocked Socrates as a charlatan; Cicero criticized the Greek philosophers for distracting student from preparation for public life.  Jefferson extolled education as essential not for the pursuit of truth or the preparation of students for work, but as foundation of civic life.

Those of us today who defend liberal education—and we are many—often make arguments for it that go well beyond the value of “intellectual curiosity,” though to be sure intellectual curiosity is important.  Take, for example, William Theodore De Bary, the provost emeritus of Columbia University, whose recent book, The Great Civilized Conversation:  Education for a World Community, is a richly elaborated defense of liberal education as “education for the world community.”  De Bary’s book is one of many in arm’s reach on my book shelf that defy Berrett’s simplistic dichotomy.

Climate Citizens, Rape Culture, ISIS, Employment

Liberal education serves all four purposes at once, but seldom in equal measure.  Because we have limited time and limited resources, and because the world throws up specific challenges at particular historical moments, we do have to choose where to throw the emphasis.

Is this, for example, the moment to emphasize a college education as the tool to turn students into “fully aware, service-oriented climate citizens,” as a dean at The New School explained her university’s new climate commitment?  The New School has just announced its decision to divest from fossil fuels as part of a comprehensive re-orientation of the university to “think differently about climate change.”  The New School  is far from alone in American higher education in its enthusiasm for this cause—a cause on which I am prominent critic and on which my organization is about to issue a major report.  But the point to make here and now is that focusing a college on “climate change” is not about “intellectual curiosity” or “job preparation,” though it can partake a little of both.  Rather, the climate change focus is primarily a version of what I called “shaping good character.”  It aims to produce a particular kind of citizen—what the dean calls a “climate citizen.”  And it does so in the name of a greater good:  saving the planet from the supposed danger of eco-apocalypse.

But other defenders of liberal education offer quite different diagnoses of what should count as the issue that should most inform liberal education today.  If we are, as many feminists and college administrators say, in the midst of a “rape culture” in higher education, what could be more pressing than to stop it?  Would protecting “intellectual curiosity” trump protecting undergraduate women from sexual predators?

Then again, many Americans attentive to the rise of ISIS and the aggressive new barbarianism of radical Islam have come to believe that liberal education today ought to prepare students to stand in defense of Western civilization.  It is a hard sell, since a substantial portion of the American professoriate is ambivalent whether the West is worth defending.  Still the idea of defending the West against Islamo-fascism is one strong way to uphold the importance of liberal arts education.

Let’s add to this list the concern that many Americans have over our nation’s economic prospects.  Officially, the unemployment rate stands at 5.6 percent, but many observers see only statistical deception in that figure.  According to Gallup, only 44 percent of adults age 18 and older have jobs in which they work 30 or more hours a week and get a steady paycheck.   The employment-population ratio stands at about 58.6 percent—more than 100 million Americans do not have jobs.  Granted, some of those don’t want jobs or cannot work, but we add to this picture that recent college graduates are having a very hard time finding work that matches their credentials.  Richard Vedder, Christopher Denhart, and Jonathan Robe have documented that 48 percent of employed college graduates are working in jobs that the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics classifies as requiring less than a four-year college education.

With this picture in mind, Governor Walker’s clumsy attempt to change the mission of the University of Wisconsin has at least some warrant.  As a nation, we are spending vast amounts of money on higher education, but achieving rather poor results as far as matching education to “workforce needs.”  Add to this President Obama’s unrelenting insistence on sending greater and greater percentages of students to college, and the $21.8 billion shortfall last year in the federal student loan program, and it is fair to say we have a crisis.  That $21.8 billion, according to Politico, is “apparently the largest ever recorded for any government credit program.”   And President Obama, of course, has just proposed a gigantic increase in federal spending on higher education—in the name of improving the financial prospects of the young and making America more prosperous.

Unlike the global warming crisis and the rape culture crisis, this one is not imaginary.  The gap between what we spend on education and what we achieve in preparing young people for high-skill employment is very large, and the social consequences of the gap are significant.

How we should respond to it, however, is an open question.  Not long ago, Charles Murray in Real Education argued that we should let much of higher education subside into its obsolescence and replace it with a regime of skills-oriented tests.  “Badges” based on such tests are indeed becoming more common.  Others, such as Harvard’s Clayton Christensen in The Innovative University, have called for hybrid models that combine online education with residential experience.  There are plenty of observers  who think the time has come to let “creative destruction” rip through the groves of academe like an army of loggers intent on a clear cut.

And there are plenty of others who shrink in terror at the prospect.  Viewed in that light, Governor Walker’s revision of the University of Wisconsin’s mission statement was the intervention of a moderate.  If we are going to save the contemporary university, some significant and painful changes may be necessary.

Back to Berrett

Berrett isn’t entirely unaware that higher education serves multiple ends.  Though he has reduced it to only a two-sided battle between advocates of pure learning and advocates of job preparation, he claims, “These two theories had long existed in uneasy equilibrium.”  The past perfect tense of that sentence is because Reagan, he believes, tipped the balance.  “On that day in 1967, Reagan crystalized what has since become conventional wisdom about college.”  The utilitarians have won.

Berrett’s account of what has happened in higher education is profoundly false, but as sometimes happens, it is false in ways that make it interesting to examine.  How in the world does someone get to the view that Ronald Reagan of all people undermined liberal education?  It is not for lack of attention to the various strands of American thinking about higher education.  Part of the answer is that Berrett follows the lead of the president of Wesleyan University, Michael Roth, whose recent book, Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters, cites the views of Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Booker T. Washington, and W.E.B. Du Bois.  Berrett does too.

I’ve reviewed Roth’s book elsewhere, which is a piece of leftist self-pleading.  He sets up the same either/or as Berrett.  He vindicates the nonutilitarian value of education, viz. “to teach students to liberate, animate, cooperate, and instigate,” and sets this against the notion of mere vocational training.  Roth is pretty happy with the status quo and seems mostly intent on persuading Americans to continue footing the bill.  His reply to those, like the NAS, who criticize the overexpansion of higher education at the expense of academic standards is that we “seem to be very comfortable with the kinds of inequality that were characteristic of [preindustrial] societies.”  That’s a serpentine way of calling us racists, and it is an interesting subtext to the strawman argument that distinguishes progressive support for “intellectual curiosity” (or Roth’s term, “instigation”) from vocational training.  Who is more concerned about the prospects of young people from impoverished backgrounds—those who want to immerse them in sustainability/women’s studies/identity group studies programs, or those who are concerned about preparing students for the workforce?

But let’s not give this strawman matches to play with.  The truth is that higher education has to find a balance between its competing ideals.  Anyone who sets them off as mutually exclusive is on a path to non-creative destruction.  And therein lies both Governor Walker’s and Dan Berret’s mistake.

But not, as it happens, Ronald Reagan’s.  Dan Berrett himself ends his Chronicle article on what is supposed to be an ironic note, as he quotes Reagan’s address at the inauguration of a new library at Eureka College in 1967—the same year as the press conference.  At the dedication Reagan gave a full-throated defense of the liberal arts tradition, saying that the “answers to all the problems of mankind” could be found in the library.  In fact, there is no irony at all.  Reagan was a civilized as well as a wise man, who could distinguish between the frivolous forms of intellectual curiosity and the profound ends to which intellectual curiosity could be put.  The problem we have today is that so many of those who purport to defend the liberal arts no longer know how to draw that distinction.

Last Thing

The re-emergence of the fatuous distinction between the liberal arts as self-justifying intellectual curiosity and the right’s obsession with bottom line results deserves just a little bit more attention.  Berrett’s Chronicle essay offers a lengthy chronology of how conservatives supposedly tipped the balance in favor of the utilitarian view.  It includes things like the 1973 oil embargo which prompts students to “flock to practical and pre-professional majors,” and the rise of the internet as shifting liberal arts education away from “facts” and toward “habits of mind and skills like critical thinking.”  Berrett also recounts the rise of various higher education organizations in the battle against reducing college to job training.

I take Berrett’s narrative as representative of an argument that I have often heard from left-of-center defenders of contemporary higher education.  They see the peril to the liberal arts as arising almost exclusively from external forces, both material (the oil embargo) and ideological (proponents of free market ideas).

Missing altogether from Berrett’s timeline are things like the 1962 Port Huron Statement, in which the SDS laid out its agenda for using colleges and universities as instruments for radical transformation of American society; the 1964 Berkeley Free Speech Movement, which was the opening phase of the successful effort by the campus left to unseat the curricular authority of the university; or the success of the effort to establish racial preferences in admissions and “diversity” as the regnant campus creed.  The fragmentation and trivialization of the liberal arts curriculum had a lot to do with these developments.  And the disaffection of millions of Americans with higher education today is in very large part a consequence of the self-destruction of the ideals on which the liberal arts were once based.

Berrett is among those defenders of the status quo who are unable or unwilling to look more than momentarily at the bonfire the left has made of the curriculum and of academic standards.  Where will liberal education go next?  I hope it not only survives, but that it thrives in years to come.  That will happen, however, only if we get serious about defending the essentials and return to Reagan’s distinction between the higher uses of liberal learning and the distractions that merely appropriate the name of the liberal arts.  We need more discernment, less distraction.

My advice to Governor Walker:  don’t fall into the simplistic distinction between the “search for truth” and “workplace needs” that your opponents have set up.  It is a net at your feet meant to trap you.  Asking and expecting universities to address workplace needs is legitimate—more than legitimate, it is urgent.  But it is a goal that can be pursued without making yourself a supposed enemy of open-minded inquiry.  It is your foes who, rightly understood, have snapped their minds shut against the danger of new ideas.


  • Peter Wood

    Peter Wood is president of the National Association of Scholars and author of “1620: A Critical Response to the 1619 Project.”

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