Defending the Liberal Arts Education is Not the Issue

Why America’s obsession with STEM education is dangerous”
Fareed Zakaria
The Washington Post
March 26, 2015

Out stumping for his new book In Defense of a Liberal Education, public intellectual Fareed Zakaria makes a case in the Washington Post that our national obsession with improving math and science education and de-emphasizing humanities is a dangerous path toward doffing our global competitive advantage. (NB: to clarify, Mr. Zakaria means “liberal” as in “liberal arts,” not “liberal politics.”

As the possessor of a bachelors degree in a liberal arts field, I am loathe to argue with Mr. Zakaria. Nonetheless, if his essay is any indicator of the content of his book I will not be adding it to my shelves anytime soon. There are several reasons.

The Higher Education Cost Bubble

First, no discussion about the nature of a university education can be divorced from its cost. It is too expensive to get a bachelor’s degree in this country, and that is burdening aged parents and turning our college graduates into wage slaves. Until we solve that problem – or make great strides toward it – everything else is so much re-arranging of deck furniture.

Before we go tossing money at the problem, we need to put the pressure on public universities to re-examine what they are doing with their funds. Money that is not going to scholarships, classrooms, labs, teaching staff, libraries, and the basic infrastructure to support students and instructors is being wasted. A half million new administrators have been added to university employment rolls in the US in the past 25 years, growing faster than student bodies. We need to look at what can be done to reduce the administrative burden on universities and reduce the number of administrators. Our target: cut administrators-per-student by 50% in 5 years.  Let’s cut capital spending on gold-plated facilities that turn universities into resorts with classrooms.

What is a BA For, Anyway?

Second, we should not be defending the liberal arts status quo any more than we should be stripping funding of the humanities. What we should be doing instead is conducting a national debate about the purpose of a baccalaureate degree. Is four years enough? Is it too much? How do we make it more affordable? And, most importantly, what should the content be?

Should we not be trying to create young men and women comfortably conversant in the idioms of a broad range of fields rather than laying on a minimal core requirement of box-ticking introductory-level courses? Would we not be better off filling the first two – or even three – years of a bachelor’s degree with rigorous survey courses in the humanities, in the social sciences, in physical sciences, in mathematics, leavened with composition, rhetoric, computer science, and foreign language, all prior to the commencement of the major program of study?

For if we are going to agree that the bachelor’s degree is not a vocational qualification, we should agree on its purpose, and I suggest that the purpose is to create a future filled with people capable of drawing from a range of fields to feed their creativity and our competitiveness. We want Renaissance Men and Women in the 21st Century sense, young people who could write a sonnet or an app, as comfortable at the easel as they are at the keyboard.

Those charged with teaching undergraduates would protest, I am sure, that not everyone could keep up with such requirements. No, probably not. But that brings us to my final point.

College As We Know It is Not For Everyone

We need to start a discussion in this country about whether everyone can – or should – have a bachelor of arts degree in the same way everyone can – or should – have a high school diploma. Each of us knows intelligent, capable 18 year-olds (or former 18 year-olds) for whom four or five years in the quest for a BA would have been a fruitless, frustrating, and wasteful endeavor. Indeed, there are 16-year olds for whom the last two years of high school are a waste of time. It is now time to ask whether we should be placing them on the same treadmill, or whether we should be offering something more valuable: an education designed to make them employable, productive, and, secure.

It is past time for us to begin to frame the future of trade and technical education, not only as an alternative track to a baccalaureate program, but as a means of offering retraining opportunities as job markets train. The decline of trade and technical education over the past four decades means that technical education has only been available through costly for-profit institutions, or offered as a part of an enlistment in the armed forces. Our young people should not have to put on a uniform or go into debt to learn the fundamentals of key trades or technical specialities, particularly those for which there is a constant need: machinists, auto repair, medical paraprofessionals, construction trades, bookkeepers, child care and elder care specialists, and food preparation specialists are just a few of the career areas for which our revived vocational school programs could cater. Many of these could be conducted in cooperation with local industries, expanding programs that already exist to provide a clear path from the classroom to the workplace.

Instead of cranking out millions of young people who will never find adequate employment to offset the costs of their college educations, we will be turning out ranks of readily employable apprentices, unsaddled with debt and ready to go to work. We need to forge a pathway for them to rewarding careers based on essential skills without owing their souls to the University of Phoenix, ITT-Tech, or DeVry.

The system cannot be framed in a handful of paragraphs, but issues like these suggest that Mr. Zakaria may well have done us all a greater service by using his bully pulpit to start a larger discussion about the real problems in American education.

We need to start this discussion to decide not if we are going to do this, but how. It is time for us to tear down our system of education and rebuild it from the bottom up. That is the only way we are going to ensure that our grandkids have a shot at a life even remotely as comfortable as our own.

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