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Get Rid of Liberal Arts Education?

The Governor of North Carolina wants to take us down a dangerous path.

By Michael Zakaras

Michael is a writer and strategist who specializes in social entrepreneurship and public policy. He has worked for Ashoka in the United States, Ireland, and Central Europe and has a Master's from the Harvard Kennedy School. He's currently based in New York City.

January 30, 2013

Yesterday Governor Pat McCrory of North Carolina caused quite a stir when he publicly questioned whether or not state-funded universities like UNC-Chapel Hill should be teaching liberal arts.

In his own words: “I think some of the education elite have taken over our education where we are offering courses that have no chance of getting people jobs.” He took aim at gender studies to illustrate his point: "If you want to take gender studies that's fine, go to a private school and take it. But I don't want to subsidize that if that's not going to get someone a job."

Of course, it’s hard to know where to begin to pick apart this idea, but it’s rooted in a backwards conception of the purpose of education and in a deeply flawed understanding of the kinds of skills and knowledge future generations will need to succeed in the world. Not to mention a misread on the structural causes of youth unemployment (hint: the reason young college graduates can’t find jobs is not because they studied history or political science).

Yes, there is a role for vocational training, but any wise observer should also ask: in a world defined by rapid change and uncertain labor markets – one where switching jobs and careers regularly is the new norm – is it really a good idea to teach strictly for job placement rather than broader skill development? After all, there’s a good chance that the trade you learn today will be obsolete in a half decade.

It’s the same problem that plagues our broader conversation about public education: we focus almost exclusively on content as the end in itself rather than the means toward skill acquisition and youth development.

American creativity has always been the great differentiator in the global economy – it’s what fuels Silicon Valley and leads to the creation of entire new fields. It’s what allows us to imagine something better. We should be asking ourselves – whether we’re talking about K-12 or universities – how we can facilitate that creativity and imagination. That is the kind of education that will grow our economy. And who’s to say whether your inspiration won’t come in a history or gender studies class?

Thankfully, some people get it. Like this billionaire software developer who came right out and explained why a liberal arts education is more valuable than any trade. And the 1,700 CEOs that IBM surveyed last year who named creativity and flexibility as two of the top skills for employee success (collaborative was #1 – analytical/quantitative was 6th).

Meg Morgan, a veteran English professor at UNC Charlotte, responded to McCrory: "If we want to create a society of non-thinkers, follow McCrory's line. If we want critical thinkers and world changers, we need to make them look at new ideas and change their lives (and others' lives) based on them."

Morgan is right on. And what she says is a big motivation for our work at Start Empathy and Ashoka. We may be focusing on elementary education, but the fact is that at every level our goal should be to develop minds and facilitate understanding of the world in the broadest sense. Empathy is a core ingredient – as are the liberal arts – and the fact that both are so easily put on the chopping block highights how Governor McCrory (along with too many others) simply aren't seeing the big picture. Let's help them do so. 

(Photo credit: flickr user anthony.smith.1015)