The Civitas Institute, North Carolina’s statewide right-wing think tank, accuses the UNC system of wasting taxpayers’ money on “courses [that] are esoteric, tinged with propaganda and often populated with few students.” Civitas and its sister organization, the Pope Center, delight in this methodology, which consists of reading course catalogs and deciding which course titles sound silly to the report’s author. Presumably this author has no particular academic credentials (indeed,
he she appears to have graduated from UNC last month and headed to Washington to work as a lobbyist for UPS), but feels qualified to evaluate the content of academic courses he she has never taken and whose content he she has not read.
Predictably, the logic of the argument is that these courses do not “prepare students for the ’21st Century knowledge-based economy’”, that is, they don’t convey the skills Civitas expects to be necessary for future employment. Furthermore, these wouldn’t exist “without substantial taxpayer subsidies,” the implication being that market forces could suitably determine which courses are worth teaching. There are several things wrong with this way of thinking about higher education; I’ll detail a few here.
First, a quick glance at the course list reveals that most of the courses are in the humanities or humanities-oriented social sciences. Recent evidence suggests that these are precisely the courses in which students are actually learning the most. Indeed, those “populated with few students” are also those in which instructors are more likely to offer the direct instruction, reading and writing requirements, and critical feedback that are essential to students making intellectual progress during college.
Trying to determine what specific skills will be necessary for the 21st-century economy is a bit like trying to time the market: a quest for too much precision leads to missing the mark. It’s a reasonable argument that the reason to have and maintain a public university is precisely because it provides the kind of generalized capacity for thought that makes alumni flexible thinkers, thereby better able to adapt to unanticipated events in professional life (in the context of citizenship I wrote about this in Citizen Speak as “thick” vs. “thin” democratic imaginations). I happened to meet a high-up finance person recently and we were talking about higher education, and he said he believes finance should be looking specifically to hire humanities and other liberal arts graduates because their training better prepares them for the intellectual rigor of finance than does the narrow curriculum experienced by finance and business majors.
Second, and in partial contradiction to the above, the reason to have a great public university system is not simply to prepare students for the 21st- century knowledge economy. As our mission makes clear, our role is far greater than that. It has been greater than that since the founding of the university. The 1789 charter charges the university with the mission:
To consult the happiness of a rising generation, and endeavour to fit them for an honourable discharge of the social duties of life, by paying strictest attention to their education.
(This quote graces the mantlepiece of the Fellows’ Room at UNC’s Institute for Arts and Humanities, among the most intellectually rich places with which I have ever had the pleasure of being affiliated.)
Even in the realm of undergraduate education (itself only one facet of the whole university), that is, the point is not simply to make graduates into more profitable employees but to prepare them for “honourable discharge of the social duties of life,” a goal the courses Civitas doesn’t
understand like may well serve.
Third, I believe what is really going on here is the right wing’s good old fashioned anti-intellectualism. Multiple viewpoints, complexity of thought, esoteric topics, and exploration of new areas are scary to important portions of the right-wing coalition (NOTE: I am NOT claiming this is true of all conservatives, but rather of important portions of the conservative coalition!). The exceedingly cursory treatment of the courses in the report demonstrates this anti-intellectualism. Since the post does not actually consider the content of the classes–only their titles and short descriptions–the implication is that no course in, for example, Intercultural Communication, covering “basic principles and rules for understanding intercultural communication and provides instruction on how to apply the principles when communicating in intercultural situations,” could meet the goal of “fit[ting] [students] for an honourable discharge of the social duties of life, by paying strictest attention to their education.” This claim is very, very dubious.
Fourth, and finally, the reason the market logic doesn’t apply is that students and their parents are not our customers! We serve the American and North Carolinian publics by creating and communicating knowledge for the benefit of those publics, not for the benefit of the students except insofar as that benefit is a by-product.