Liberal Education Matters

UniversityHere is a book I must read: Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters by Michael S. Roth. I have commented several times in the past about my own theories of education in America. Basically I understand that free public education was designed to prepare warm bodies with basic skills so as to furnish the captains of industry with a ready source of labor. In today’s terms, it was a form of corporate welfare.

But at the same time we have our founding fathers championing education as being required to support democracy with a citizenry capable of thinking and reasoning. Thomas Jefferson clearly understood that developing a student’s capacity for life-long learning within a university structure was necessary for science and commerce while also being essential for democracy: the university should not be solely academic but also should not be limited to simply training young people for pre-selected jobs.

The article in The Daily Beast titled How To Destroy College Education gives us a quick overview of the unfortunate reality threatening liberal education today.

Americans starting with Benjamin Franklin have been suspicious of liberal arts higher education. But lately the critics’ knives are out in earnest.

In America we fight about education. One of the key struggles today is centered on whether we should retool the college years so that we get students to be “job ready” and tracked into some specific task needed in the economy now. This retooled version of instrumentalism is diametrically opposed to our great tradition of liberal education that envisions learning as a vehicle for social mobility and effective citizenship. This tradition stretches back to the foundation of the country. “Wherever a general knowledge and sensibility have prevailed among the people,“ John Adams wrote, “arbitrary government and every kind of oppression have lessened and disappeared in proportion.”

Over the past several years, however, we have seen a new sort of criticism directed at the academy. These critics no longer claim to be in search of “true liberal learning,” but instead call for an education that simply equips people to play an appropriate role in the economy. …

Many today are calling for us to create a much more vocational style of teaching. They claim that in today’s economy we should track students earlier into specific fields for which they seem to have aptitude. This is exactly the opposite of the American tradition of liberal education. From the revolutionary war through contemporary debates about the worth of college, American thinkers have emphasized the ways that broad, pragmatic learning enhances the capacities of the whole person, allowing individuals greater freedom and an expanded range of possible choices. Liberal education in this tradition means learning to learn, creating habits of independent critical and creative thinking that would last a lifetime.

sovietWhen I was in grade school, back in the good-old-days of Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower, we saw films of the enslavement of much of the world by communism … and one image that stuck in my mind was the regimentation of education in the Soviet Union. Today I realize that almost everything we were told about communism and the USSR back then was pure propaganda intended to frighten American citizens and to keep the defense budget robust, but does anyone else realize that the current right-wing approach to higher education is clearly modeled after the soviet approach.

Although it seems strange to say today’s fascists are taking a concept from communism when it comes to education, it’s actually worse than that. Directed education where the state decides who should be educated and what they should study is not actually a communist approach but suggests a nation that is desperate for quick expansion through an expendable source of human resources. In the last century American education has been expanding the ability of all Americans to think for themselves, at least until Ronald Reagan was elected.

The corporate fascism we now live under has made knowing how to sweat a pipe more important than any Shakespearean sonnet. But it also is destroying democracy and liberty.

The effort today to limit higher education to only a certain class of students or to constrict the college curriculum to a neat, instrumental itinerary is a critical mistake, one that neglects this deep current of humanistic learning. Under the guise of practicality, this is old-fashioned, elitist condescension combined with a desire to protect the status quo of inequality.

Since the founding of this country, education has been closely tied to individual freedom, and to the ability to think for oneself and to contribute to society by unleashing one’s creative potential. The pace of change has never been faster, and the ability to shape change and seek opportunity has never been more valuable than it is today. If we want to push back against inequality and enhance the vitality of our culture and economy, we need to support greater access to a broad, pragmatic liberal education.

Unfortunately, you might have noticed that Roth begs the question at the end of his piece: “If we want to push back against inequality and enhance the vitality of our culture and economy, we need to support greater access to a broad, pragmatic liberal education.” Absolutely! Progress is made through liberal education. But this country has turned to a vicious form of fascism that does not want to enhance the vitality of the culture but seeks to return it to a modern version of feudalism and is quite comfortable with inequality.

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