When North Carolina’s Republican governor Pat McCrory told former U.S. Education Secretary William Bennett that public universities need to better prepare their students for the job market, he set off a bit of a brouhaha within academia. The governor, somewhat crassly, questioned the utility of disciplines like gender studies and stated public funding ought to be allocated not by the number of “butts in seats, but how many of the butts can get jobs.” This statement predictably set off a wave of outrage, with numerous professors declaring that McCrory simply doesn’t “get” the life of the mind.
My reaction is split. As a Swarthmore student, I’m invested in the pursuit of the liberal arts for their own sake. My justification for choosing to major in English Literature is more because I find reading “War and Peace” satisfying and less because I have a set careerist gameplan. However, as a taxpayer and citizen I do worry that states and the federal government have subsidized higher education to the point that price signals are terribly out of whack.
In debates over the cost of the ivory tower, conservatives too often get framed as luddites who don’t understand the priceless role of the classroom. But Governor McCrory’s interview comments aren’t “conservative” per se. Rather, they’re the natural response to over-involving government in the mission of higher education.
Americans now owe one trillion dollars in student loans, and many recent grads are discovering that their lackluster employment options are not enough to pay off their massive levels of debt. Meanwhile, state budgets are financially strapped, and families are questioning the soundness of their investment when nearly half of American students are failing to obtain a college degree within six years. We can wax philosophical about the Great Books, but not if we’re going bankrupt and few students are actually reading them anyway.
Disgruntled UNC-Chapel Hill geography professor Altha Cravey told the Wall Street Journal that Governor McCrory “was not elected to decide what has intellectual value and what does not.” But actually, so long as professors like Cravey depend on public largesse for their academic livelihoods, Governor McCrory does have the authority to question what goes on at Chapel Hill. If anything, colleges are universities are sacrificing the awe and respect they deserve by sending students into an indebtedness that families and taxpayers deeply resent.
A better solution is to remove the federal government from its student loan monopoly, which is closely associated with skyrocketing tuition. In 1978, the federal government became much more involved in subsidizing college degrees, and by 1980, the rise in tuition exceeded inflation. Today, the U.S. government now controls over 93% of the student loan market, and, since 1982, the cost of college has increased 439%. Kicking government out of our colleges might result in fewer geography departments overall, but the ones that persist will be less subject to the so-called higher ed “bubble” and its impending burst.
After all, President Obama doesn’t sell the public on educational funding because he wants every nineteen year old to ponder Aristotle. Instead, Obama speechifies about college as a crucial component to economic competition, with statements such as “I want to make sure that the United States of America once again has the highest percentage of college graduates because that is going to help determine who wins the race in this global economy in the 21st century.”
So politicians like McCrory are holding state university students to Obama’s own standards. If droves of sociology majors are not propping up the “global economy,” we’ve got a political and financial problem on our hands and need to fix it. In this case, it’s big government that’s mechanizing education.
Conservatives can and should defend learning for the sake of learning, separate from the utilitarian aims of government. The liberal arts are about intellectual liberation and the realization of self. As Princeton professor (and Swarthmore grad) Robert George said recently, “The fulfillments on offer in a liberal arts education are fundamentally intellectual. The intellect is a spiritual faculty. So the advantages of a liberal arts education are, at their core, spiritual. True liberal arts learning is soul enriching.”
If we speak of education in this manner, we recognize the liberal arts as a gift. Through generous private philanthropy, the savings of our parents, or our own commitment to paying off future debt, some of us are receiving that gift at Swarthmore. But Swarthmore isn’t for everybody, and I don’t think it’s elitist to say so. In fact, I think it’s more elitist for Washington plutocrats to assume that sending everyone to college is the only way to build a prosperous society. It’s much preferable to recognize and encourage the dignity of honest work in any number of trades.
And for unconventional students who are still academically curious, online course platforms like Coursera and Udacity now offer Greek mythology or Calculus to anyone with an Internet connection. Cheap ebook readers will download the writings of Adam Smith in a matter of seconds. No, importing the Enlightenment over the Internet doesn’t quite have the same luster as a twelve-person seminar, but it’s also more flexible, not to mention more affordable by several zeros.
I’m confident there will continue to be a demand for small, elite liberal arts colleges. I’m proud to be a consumer of the liberal arts and urge other students at both public and private institutions to find a way of funding a well-rounded education if that’s their genuine passion. But I understand why a lot of Americans question the hefty price tag and government’s role in the higher ed market.