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In Defense of Liberal Arts – Sort’a

This is something that has troubled my wife for a couple of weeks. It's an issue I have only, in the last couple of days, started to pay attention to — my state's recently elected conservative Governor. For me it's like this… We elect this guy and I think, “He's a Republican, sure! A conservative, but so am I in many ways. He's an adult, mature, and responsible. He isn't going to do any real harm.” My goodness, I should have learned my lesson by now.

In a January 29 interview with conservative talk show host, Bill Bennett, North Carolina Governor Pat McCroy began his attack on North Carolina's much admired university system. Announcing his advocacy of vocational education, he said,

“I think some of the educational elite have taken over our education where we are offering courses that have no chance of getting people jobs.”

Now personally, I feel that it is a little bit unfair to make judgements about a politician based on a short radio interview and it's important to acknowledge that one of the functions of conservative (and liberal) media is to say things that generate the most emotional energy. But McCroy's comments have been echoed pretty extensively through the local and national news – and the education discussion is a critical one for our state and nation — and future

You can read about the interview here, here and here, and also listen to it here.

Claiming that NC has the 5th highest unemployment rate in the country and that businesses here can't find qualified employees, he continued,

“I want to adjust my education curriculum to what business and commerce needs to get our kids jobs as opposed to moving back in with their parents after they graduate.”

With an adult son living under my roof and an underemployed daughter, who continues to rely on us for part of her monthly payments, I identify with this statement. But, at fault, is not the courses in literature, history and music they've taken. Fault is with a business sector of highly skilled financial experts, who manipulated the nation's economy, with little regard for the human and cultural impact of their greedy actions.

Apparently “Gender Studies” at UNC is a common target of conservatives – a Google search for [University of North Carolina, "gender studies" and conservative] yielded approximately 2.8 million hits),

Continuing the attack, Bill Bennett mentioned “gender studies” as an example, prompting our governor to remark, that if you want to take those classes, then “go to a private school and take it, but I don’t want to subsidize that if it’s not going to get someone a job.”

McCrory declared that,

“I'm looking for engineers, I'm looking for technicians, I'm looking for mechanics.”

Continuing,

“Its the tech jobs that we need right now. Even in my tech schools, my community colleges, which are fantastic in North Carolina, most people don't realize that 2/3 of my students are women, and most of them are going into health care or taking Jr. College programs, when in fact I have a lot of unemployed men who typically go into technology, or mechanics or welding or something. If they do, they can get six-figure pay right now, but instead they're in unemployment.”

OK, he's describing a real problem here, that I see among my own personal friends, that young men are not going to or finishing college. So abolishing history and art will solve the problem? A job search on the North Carolina Department of Commerce's JobConnector site listed only 42 welding jobs available throughout all regions of the state ranging in pay from $9.50 to $18.00 an hour. Again, the function of these shows is to generate emotional energy.

Pat McCrory is a graduate of Catawba College, a North Carolina private liberal arts school. He said that he believes in liberal arts. He continued,

“There are two reasons for education. One is to, as Dad use to say, exercise the brain. But the second is to get a skill.”

That's it?

This brings me to what seems to be a paradox in McCrory's thinking. When asked by Bennett, how he got 40% of North Carolina's Hispanic vote, he replied,

“I did not appease any one group and change my speech, I gave the same consistent message on building the economy and building jobs, and believe me, that's as important for the Latino or Hispanic community as every other community.” 1

At first he was describing an economy that is starving for qualified workers, and now an economy that needs to be stimulated to generate more jobs. I believe that these two problems co-exist, and that our governor is probably genuinely concerned about them both. But I would suggest that North Carolina's economy will not be stimulated by skilled workers alone, no matter how buff their brains are. New jobs come from innovation and not just in the business sector. It comes from people who are creative, outside-the-box thinkers, and who can see beyond “TIG welding an aluminum joint.”

So how do you accomplish this. How do you bring Silicon Valley-style inventive thinking to the mountains, valleys and coastal plains of North Carolina?

In 2008, technologist, turned academic, Vivek Wadhwa, co-authored a study called Education and Tech Entrepreneurship. They interviewed representatives of 1,800 successful (sales in excess of $1 million) tech startups with U.S. born founders. They learned that 92% of the founders held bachelor's degrees, 31% with masters degrees and 10% PhDs. Yet, less than half of those degrees were in STEM subjects. In fact, more held degrees in arts, humanities, and social sciences than mathematics – though both constituted only a small percentage of the whole. 2

In a more recent New York Times op ed piece, Wadhwa wrote,

“Gaining a degree made a big difference in the sales and employment of the company that a founder started. But the field that the degree was in or the school that it was obtained from was not a significant factor.”

He went on to write that,

“The most common traits I have observed are a passion to change the world and the confidence to defy the odds and succeed.”

Where in a purely technical course of study are you inspired to “defy the odds.” 3

I think that Steve Jobs said it best,

“It's in Apple's DNA that technology alone is not enough. It's technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities that yields us the results that makes our heart sing.” 4

McCrory's is a simplistic, unimaginative and potentially harmful approach and I hope that he and those who are excited by such approaches can be inspired to defy them.

Protect Liberal Arts Classes at UNC

 

1 McCrory, P. (2013). Bill bennett's morning in america[Web]. Retrieved from http://goo.gl/nlQXY

2 Wadhwa, V., Freeman, R., & Rissing, B. (2008). Education and tech entrepreneurship. Kansas City: Kauffman: The Foundation of Entrepreneurship.

3 Wadwa, V. (2011, August 3). The leaders of silicon valley.The New York Times. Retrieved from http://goo.gl/LMRrj

4 Jobs, S. (Performer) (2011). Steve jobs apple's dna = technology liberal arts [Web]. Retrieved from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AZeOhnTuq2I

 

Comments

  • Liz Sanders

    Thanks for addressing this in such a thoughtful way. As I have known you for years you are a perfect example of how a liberal arts education and a later extensive technology background have served you well.
    Steve Jobs talked about the perfect marriage of the liberal arts and technology and I do agree.
    Obviously our governor does not understand the necessity for all to have an excellent pre-K education either.
    I am very disappointed.
    Steve Jobs talked about the perfect marriage and I do agree.

  • Kari Kelly

    I will always put my foot down on this issue. There is so much value to be had in the liberal arts. Had it not been for my degree in musical theatre, I would not have the courage to stand in front of a classroom everyday, nor the quick thinking or improvisational skills that let me change lessons to fit a set of students at a whim, nor any knowledge of who I truly am and what I can do. Do you see where I’m going here? The liberal arts is so much more than, “I’m going to do this and get a job in it.” Even if a student takes just a few courses in some form of arts, that student learns culture and in-depth thinking in ways that are not taught in a typical classroom. Yes, skills are important, but they are nothing without confidence and lasting self-awareness to sustain you.


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