Wednesday, February 9, 2011

On state firearms, feral animals, and "degrees to nowhere."

It's been awhile since i've posted here, but alas, the 2011 legislative session has begun and it was only a matter of time before our state legislative body proposed or did something that merited response. As usual, it didn't take long before some rather bufoonish legislation had garnered national attention for Utah. Rep. Wimmer pushing for a state firearm just weeks after the tragedy in Tucson showed a distinct lack of class or good taste. And Rep. Oda has followed suit by sponsoring HB 210 that would give Utahns the much needed ability to shoot any animal that we have a "reasonable belief" is feral. Great, if all goes well and these bills proceed through the legislative body i'll be able to acquire a Browning 1911 Offical State Handgun and lay waste to all the damn feral cats that come and defecate under my porch. Pet owners beware! Make sure to mark your pets well lest they be mowed down by a 2nd-amendment-celebrating neighbor who "mistakes" them for feral animals.

But it wasn't either of these bills that really spurred me out of my political correspondence hiatus. As tasteless as i consider Wimmer's bill, it was something far more specious that has prompted me to write. Recently a couple of state senators have begun to criticize liberal arts degrees as "degrees to nowhere" and have even advocated cutting english, philosophy, and other degrees that, in their opinion, don't contribute to a growing economy. Last week in a presentation to the Higher Education Appropriations Subcommittee, Sen. Howard Stephenson argued that the state is wasting billions of dollars on "degrees to nowhere" that do not prepare graduates to enter the workforce. Instead of funding degrees such as sociology, psychology, and philosophy, Stephenson argued we should be putting our money towards job training programs and "STEM" (science, technology, engineering, and math) programs. Although Stephenson said he supported the liberal arts and wanted students to be able to pursue a liberal arts education if they so desired, he consistently insisted that departments were "tricking" (his exact word) students into signing up for majors that would leave them unemployed after graduation. He suggested that higher ed is to blame for economic problems because of a misalignment between college degree programs and job vacancies (there are a lot of unemployed folks right now who i'm sure are really interested to know just where these job vacancies are). His solution: an "Economic Value Assessment" performed by IBM and set up as a web portal through which students can be tracked from an early age into an appropriate area of study. Other legislators and university officials, as reported by the Desnews and SLTrib, were quick to point out that the data does not support Stephenson's assertions.
Sen. Stuart Reid also called for a cut in liberal arts programs, suggesting that if the University of Utah was so cash-strapped in its STEM programs that it had to offer saturday chem labs, it should cut liberal arts programs in order to more adequately fund the STEM programs. In responding to President Young's comments to the committee Senator Reid argued that the U shouldn't be all things to all people and should drop liberal art programs so that resources can be allocated to STEM degrees. Reid went on to suggest to Pres. Young that the U is competing with itself by offering programs (i.e. the liberal arts) that won't get it to it's goals of national prominence in economic development.

Plenty has already been written and said about how a liberal arts degree actually prepares students for the work place. Plenty of information is readily available about how four-year college degree holders have much lower unemployment rates and much higher earning rates. But these responses only further validate the real problem here and why this particular avenue of thought about the purpose of education is so dangerous. Responding to critics of the liberal arts by suggesting that the liberal arts adequately prepares, and is some cases better prepares students for the workplace only perpetuates the notion that the primary purpose of an education is job training. And underlying this assumption is the notion that educational merit, and even more disturbing, the merit of a person, can only be measured in terms of economic value. The value of your education, and by extension you, is only as good as the amount of money you can generate for the economy after graduation. Of course this falls right in line with how we measure progress in most developed countries: the GDP. And although the GDP is a useful measure for overall economic growth, this economic growth does not necessarily correlate with happiness, satisfaction, strong families, and most certainly not with sustainability. To give an oft-cited example, a mother who pays to leave her child at a daycare then drives her car to a separate daycare where she works until she drives back to the first day care to pick up her child contributes far more to the GDP ( in terms of paying for her child's care, driving her car, and then taking an income for her work at a separate daycare) than the stay-at-home mother who spends her day with her child. Good for the GDP, not necessarily good for the child or family. Yet these are exactly the kind of means by which these legislators want to measure the value of our education; inasmuch as it can increase our overall economic development.
Sen. Stephenson emphasized that he supported the liberal arts, yet he wants to use an "Economic Value Assessment" to track students into the STEM programs so that they will be more employable after graduation. We, as students, teachers, educators, our being reduced to our "economic value." In such a system we are not valued for our creativity, passions, beauty, stories, differences, experiences, or any of the other things that make building relationships and human interactions so exciting and fulfilling. We are valued solely for what we can contribute to the GDP. This model is appalling and contrary to the human spirit. It is contradictory to the concept of democracy, though it certainly meets the needs of capitalism, but be assured the two are not necessarily synonymous. How does such a system help prepare us for participation in civic society? How does such a system prepare us to live and work and play in a pluralistic society? Because despite the best attempts of the xenophobes, we are becoming increasingly and increasingly pluralistic. How does such a system prepare us for the moral and ethical questions that accompany developments in sciences and technology? And most importantly how does it prepare us to live rich lives full of learning and engagement? Let me be clear, i do not believe that learning only happens in the university and a university degree is a requisite for a full life, but life-long learning and challenging oneself are critical to an engaged and rich life, and these should be the trademarks and foundation of a good liberal arts education.
Senators Stephenson and Reid walk dangerous ground when they reduce the value of education to it's ability to train workers for the labor force. Likewise those who defend the liberal arts by citing their economic value in the workplace compromise and disparage the true value of an education. Remember the adage, those who forget their history are bound to repeat it. We're far more likely to forget our history if our history programs are cut in favor of more profitable disciplines determined by the market. There is value to a liberal arts education that cannot be quantified in economic terms, and we're in big trouble if we fail to recognize that.

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