Education, or skills, or what?

An interesting public argument has been taking place in the United States, one that should have resonances elsewhere also. It was prompted by a statement from the Governor of Florida, Rick Scott. The Governor has been cutting the state’s budget, and in doing so has mused on what he would and would not like to be funding in higher education. One thing he doesn’t want to fund is programmes in anthropology. And why?  Because he doesn’t think there is employment for people who have taken a degree in anthropology. These are the Governor’s further thoughts in the matter:

‘Is it a vital interest of the state to have more anthropologists? I don’t think so… It’s a great degree if people want to get it. But we don’t need them here.’

And what does he want to fund, sort of? ‘Science, technology, engineering, and math degrees’, so that ‘when our kids get out of school, they can get a job’.

Comments such as this are part of the debate that has been taking place on the nature and purpose of higher education, and on the extent to which university degree programmes should reflect vocational and professional objectives. One of the most interesting university presidents in America, Michael Crow of Arizona State University, has responded to Governor Scott’s musings:

‘The notion that we must strip away academic programs not seemingly relevant to workforce development reflects a simplistic and retrograde view of the role of higher education in the American economy.

The governor is correct in one regard: The imperative to advance STEM education cannot be overstated. Given the importance of scientific discovery and technological innovation to our national competitiveness, we should focus on increasing the quantitative, scientific, and technological literacy of all of our students. But resolving the complex challenges that confront our nation and the world requires more than expertise in science and technology. We must also educate individuals capable of meaningful civic participation, creative expression, and communicating insights across borders. The potential for graduates in any field to achieve professional success and to contribute significantly to our economy depends on an education that entails more than calculus.’

Governor Scott clearly has no idea what university education is for, and Michael Crow’s riposte is most valuable and absolutely right. Still, very often the discussion about vocationalism in higher education is not very enlightening. The classic university disciplines are still vitally important. But on the other hand, those who believe that programmes connected with professions or employments are not appropriate in a university will really need to roll back most of what happened to universities since the mid-19th century. Subjects such as engineering, law, accountancy, architecture – not to mention social work, medicine and so forth – are all vocational, and indeed the content of university programmes in these subjects is largely determined by professional bodies.

Students overwhelmingly go to university so that they may be better equipped to enter the labour market. Universities need to recognise that, but also ensure that they are equipped to be creative, critical, analytical and culturally aware (even in Florida). There is room for a great diversity of programmes, but all of them should adopt intellectual ambition and integrity. That is the common thread; the exact subject-matter of university programmes is not.

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22 Comments on “Education, or skills, or what?”

  1. Vincent Says:

    While I have sympathy, it is very limited.
    The more I read your blog and the more I arm myself with information to gleam more from what you write the more I’ve come to the conclusion that governments of any sort, local, central or otherwise should not be involved. The agenda and objectives are polar opposites. So the quicker that you all draw fees from students the better. This may require you cut you cloth. That will be better that gradually being sliced apart and ending up as little more than a training facility for latter day field-hands.

  2. Ernie Ball Says:

    What was that you were saying about “accountability” yesterday? Scott’s position is nothing but the logical conclusion of your own. The only difference is that you want to have it both ways. “Accountability” means that the taxpayer doesn’t pay for anything that “wastes” his money. And since anything he doesn’t understand or doesn’t care about or or doesn’t think will make money is, by definition, a waste of money, those disciplines will cease to exist.

    This won’t be the end of the university as such. There will still be great private universities and the elites will still send their children there to get real educations. What there won’t be are public universities, so the children of the less well-off can just go to glorified vocational and technical colleges.

    Who is the real elitist here, Ferdinand, you or me? The guy who thinks it’s just grand that in the name of “accountability” and anti-elitism the public university be hollowed out to make it suitably empty of any enlightenment for the masses? Or the guy who thinks that the elites aren’t fools and who wants that experience of education to be available for all?


    • That’s all well and good, Ernie, but public universities use public money and need to be able to get it. The suggestion which I understand you to be advancing – that universities should be given the money, no questions asked – is simply impossible to put into practice these days, and actually rightly so. Why should universities alone not have to justify what they do with the citizens’ money?

      Complaining about the iniquities of a culture of accountability gets us nowhere at all. Making a much better case as to how our ‘accountability’ should be structured is what we need to do. Saying ‘F*** off’ to the taxpayer is unlikely to get us there.

      • Vincent Says:

        Would it be easier to say it to a student/customer.

        • Ernie Ball Says:

          Unfortunately, I have to agree with Vincent if only because I have some small hope that at least some students–even when they are paying fees–will have a greater sense of the real value of the humanities and social sciences than do governments and the business interests they are beholden to.

          But this is like “Death or Chichi” (google it): we can be enslaved to the market or we can be enslaved to the government that is enslaved to the market. What is lost in all of this is any recognition that neo-liberal market capitalism is based in an ideology and is not some natural way for the social world to function. The university as an institution both predates and encompasses that ideology, as one of many such ideologies studied and tried out within its confines. To demand that the university be subservient to market capitalism is to erect that one ideology into the one tribunal before which everything must justify itself. It is to make capitalist economics (and not philosophy or literature or physics or anything else) into the Queen of the Sciences. No University worthy of the name would accept an arrangement where the University as a whole was somehow answerable to the theories of a single discipline (Economics). Yet that is, we are told, now the only choice. Future students will be even less capable of recognising that this turn represented a choice at all than are the current crop of University Presidents, Government leaders and taxpayers. And yet, that is what a University is for: to help us to relativise and contextualise the things we take as going without saying. That institution is on the verge of disappearing under the weight of these forces with the result that there will be no organised critical thought in the Brave New World.

          Did you like that last bubble and the consequences? That was the result of neo-liberal economic groupthink. Gut the university and you make it that much less likely that we will ever even recognise such groupthink for what it is. And we’ll be doomed to repeat it.

      • Ernie Ball Says:

        All you seem to be saying here is that the case I’m making here is too complicated for stupid politicians and taxpayers to understand. Time was it wasn’t too complicated but maybe the dumbing down has already gone to far. Of course if we had leaders (University Presidents, say) who understood the problem and repeatedly and forcefully made the case to government over and over, we might be in a different boat. The only real problem here is lack of education: the lack of education of government officials and of the general public. The solution to it is more education.

        Yes, the university is unusual in requiring for the good of society that it be left alone and not subject to bottom-line thinking. It still has to balance its budget, though. But it is not unique: Arts Councils and arts organisations of all kinds are in a similar boat. Nobody as yet is demanding “accountability” from the painters and sculptors to ensure that they aren’t creating art that the taxpayer doesn’t like or understand or approve of. They simply give them the money and let them get on with it. But perhaps that day is coming too. Then we will have nothing that cannot justify itself in the market and we will all be all the poorer for it, whether we realise it or not.

        • Al Says:

          Good points

          • anna notaro Says:

            What follows is an extract from a lecture by Stanley N. Katz, then President of ACLS entitled ‘Accountability in the Arts and Sciences: Image and Reality’. The fact that it is dated 14 November 1996 is rather depressing as for the time lost and the very little progress made😦

            ‘Not only are there problems, but though of us managing universities frequently make them worse in our efforts to persuade the public of our worth. I have in mind recent, though hardly unique, campaigns to demonstrate the economic value of higher education to its local community. The Chronicle of Higher Education ran a piece entitled “In Dollars and Cents, Colleges Measure What They Contribute to Their Communities” on October 11, 1996. The lead sentence was “Once upon a time, Columbia University’s status as an Ivy League institution was all it needed to sum up its importance. Now the venerable university is also pointing to the 11,529 jobs it provides.” Going on, the article reports on the plethora of economic impact studies now being commissioned by universities, many of which measure “indirect impact on the economy” and employ “non-traditional measures” such as estimates of the future earnings of graduates who remain in the locality. But of course these claims for the business-like prowess of educational institutions provoke the question of why universities should be treated differently from other businesses (in taxation, for instance). And so several university officials interviewed for the story suggested that it might be better to have outsiders make the case for their economic utility. …
            Please don’t tell me that I am living on Cloud Nine, for I realize that public relations is a necessary part of university management these days.., I am fully aware of the tactical need to advance arguments for the economic contributions of cultural activities, even though deep down I believe that our estimates are based on a totally spurious and inaccurate quantification of the value of culture. My contention, on the contrary, is that we have not been making some of the most effective arguments available to us in stating the case for higher education before the public.’

            http://www.princeton.edu/~snkatz/papers/casc3.html

  3. Al Says:

    Isnt the greater question here about the suitability of the environment to the intended end?
    Ideas etc, are easily communicated in a lecturehall environment where student/ lecturer ratio can be maximised.
    Skills and skills development occur through practice, which depending on the skill involved occurs in the lab or in fieldwork, etc.
    When claims of skill development are made produced from a lecturehall environment then questions need to be asked about this.

  4. Rachel Says:

    Ferdinand, I have to take issue with your assessment of the words that you quote from Michael Crow as “absolutely right”, to me his statement is almost as objectionable as that of Scott. The insinuation that experts in “mere” science are not capable of “meaning civic participation, creative expression [or] communicating insights across borders” is bizarre as well as insulting. You may say that this is not what he intended, but it is what he said (according to your post). Calculus, which Crow appears to snidely dismiss as some sort of dehumanizing game for philistines devoid of imagination, is one of the greatest and most influential achievements of human intellectual creativity. Ever. Science gave and gives us the internet, space travel, the ability to talk in real time to someone thousands of miles away (still miraculous to me even though phones have been around for a while), some understanding of the incredible diversity and interconnectedness of life on this planet, images from distant galaxies, the list goes on. But if all we had was science and scientists we would have no creativity, no civic awareness and no outlet for our imaginative energies. Come on.

    There are plenty of excellent arguments for supporting education and research in the humanities in universities. Pretending that science is deficient as a creative or imaginative endeavour and that its practitioners are somehow deficient in terms of their civic awareness, human experience, or aesthetic sense is not one of them. The last line of your post is the one that I agree with Ferdinand, and the argument for support of the humanities needs to be made from a position of intellectual integrity, and on the basis of what the humanities have to offer not where the sciences are supposedly deficient. Crow’s argument just repeats a tired and idiotic stereotype about scientists, with a nod to all those who found calculus tedious in college.


    • Goodness, Rachel, I don’t think Michael Crow is saying that *at all*! In fact he has been a passionate advocate of science, visible in many ways including the investment in science by ASU. Here he is merely advocating a balance., and doing so in the context if Scott’s asinine comment.

      • Rachel Says:

        I don’t doubt that Michael Crow is a supporter of science and I am all in favour of balance. However :

        ” . . . more than expertise in science and technology. We must also educate individuals capable of meaningful civic participation, creative expression, and communicating insights across borders”

        The suggestion that expertise in science and technology is somehow at odds with or unrelated to creative expression and/or communicating insights is the bit that I don’t like. Maybe I am overreacting but I think the argument for “balance” could have been expressed better.


        • Rachel, this is what he said: ‘The imperative to advance STEM education cannot be overstated. Given the importance of scientific discovery and technological innovation to our national competitiveness, we should focus on increasing the quantitative, scientific, and technological literacy of all of our students.’

          I really don’t think this is open to the into interpretation you have given it!

          • Rachel Says:

            Maybe we just disagree on this Ferdinand. My point is not that I think he is “down on science”. It’s that I interpret the “also” and the “capable of” in “we must ALSO educate individuals capable of . . .” to mean that he is not associating qualities such as “creative expression” with practitioners of science and technology. I think the practice of science abounds with creative expression and that there are better arguments than this that can be made in favour of support for the humanities. That’s all!

  5. bethduff Says:

    On a purely practical note, sometimes we don’t know exactly where new knowledge might come from.I have a degree in Logic and Metaphysics and Moral Philosophy (from St Andrews). I haven’t used it explicitly but it has provided me with very useful critical thinking skills – and I have been fascinated to find that the epistemology and ontology I studied in the early 1970’s have contributed to much modern neuroscience. When I deliver leadership programmes, I frequently reference Angeles Arrien, an anthropologist. So yes, of course we need STEM, but arts and humanities also make a useful contribution to daily life.

  6. Regina Says:

    Quoting Scott: “Is it a vital interest of the state to have more anthropologists? I don’t think so… It’s a great degree if people want to get it. But we don’t need them here.”

    Actually what we need are far *more* courses in anthropology.

    Indeed, while some of us have luxuriated in our ‘useless’ theories of knowledge in recent years, or even vigorously pursued the principles of the ecological agenda with our students, impressing on them the reduce-reuse-recycle mantra, we have been blind to the emergence of previously undiscovered tribes, new objects of study— and most surprisingly, from within our own civilised jungles. These are of the Lehman brother lineage perhaps, and include related tribes of bankers, economists, contractors and lawyers who have been ‘eking out a living’ in completely different ecosystems, as yet unexplored and undocumented. We should have lived among them, eating as they did, sleeping on the same floors as they did, learning as they did, studying their brotherhood, understanding their positional identities, how they ‘made fire’, ‘sought shelter’– with the ultimate aim of identifying their vulnerabilities, sharing our insider knowledge with the wider world, and thus preventing the destruction of their habitat.

    Had we had enough anthropologists, we might have succeeded in changing the course of history. As it is, certain ‘tribes’ now face rapid extinction.

    Educating and employing more anthropologists should be a global imperative.

  7. John Carter Says:

    People who produce things have always been more significant than those who just talk. Ask any anthropoligist.

  8. jfryar Says:

    I would’ve thought Governer Scott’s advisors are probably shamefaced and kicking themselves after such a public statement. Scott seems intent on political suicide!

    Sure, the basic idea he espouses will initially attract nods of approval – ‘why should the taxpayer fund anthropology courses?’ But these arguments will never win over voters.

    University presidents (and potential opponents to Scott) need simply argue that it is not for politicians to decide what courses a university offers or what courses a student can apply for. A few presidents coming out and saying ‘we have no intention of closing any anthropology departments, and reductions in overall funding will be absorbed across all faculties’ would immediately force Scott’s hand.

    In other words, Scott should’ve just targeted overall spending instead of focusing on specific departments or fields of study – now it’s relatively easy to cast him as a politician who not only wants to reduce educational expenditure but also as a politician who wants to dictate what subjects are offered by universities. I’d imagine most people will find that latter idea terrifying.

  9. cormac Says:

    I have met Micheal Crow and he certainly has an innovative approach to education in the US. I wonder what he would make of the fact that we no longer have a Department of Education and Science in Ireland, but a Department of Education and Skills? A rather narrow designation, it seems to me

    • jfryar Says:

      One might also ask why it was the Department of Education and Science rather than just the Department of Education. Or did that happen when we started to see science as a commodity rather than educational subjects …

    • Al Says:

      Might be to highlight the importance of ability?

  10. Regina Says:

    Well, at least Scott is in Florida. Over here we have Which? magazine’s test of the value of degrees to look forward to: guardian.co.uk/education/2011/oct/22/which-magazine-value-degrees
    So next time your TV goes kaputt and you need some advice on a best buy, you can browse through the comparative ratings of university degrees as another commodity that might be in need of replacement.
    Somewhat ironically, Which?, as the not-for-profit publisher, has been prompted by what it sees as ‘parts of the public sector turning into market places’.

    Is this the tail wagging the dog?


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