Liberal Arts Education Needs to Be an Option for Everyone


Wisconsin governor Scott Walker’s recent budget not only proposed a 13 percent cut in support for the University of Wisconsin, but it also suggested changing the system’s mission.  Gone would be language that encouraged “public service,” the “search for truth,” and the need to “improve the human condition.”  Instead, new mission language called for higher ed to “meet the state’s workforce needs.”  In the face of immediate and widespread opposition, Walker’s office backtracked, calling the proposed changes a “drafting error.”

But the incident, in a nutshell, reflects the two competing models of higher education.  Should college educate people broadly, preparing citizens for life-long learning to promote the well-being of self and society?  Or should it be job training to meet immediate workforce needs?  These goals don’t need to be mutually exclusive, of course, but they are very different emphases.

The sort of cuts Walker–himself a college dropout–proposed are not unique.  The slow abandonment of state public financing for higher education has been going on for years and continues in the post-recession era.  That means more debt or locked doors for students with limited means.  The children of affluent parents will continue to have access to broad liberal arts education–either at increasingly pricey flagship public schools or, more often, in even pricier private schools.  But with funding cuts and a shift in emphasis, students depending on state-supported public institutions are nudged toward more narrowly defined, job-related programs.

These competing visions of education are not new. Thomas Jefferson or Ben Franklin?  W.E.B. Dubois’ “talented tenth” or Booker T. Washington’s “Atlanta compromise”?  The debate has taken many forms over the years.

The distinction is a personal one for me.  I grew up in a working class family. The regional high school everyone attended was vocationally oriented, focusing on secretarial skills, auto shop, building trades, and the like.  There was minimal support for the handful of “college track” students.  Only about 10-15% of students went on to a four-year college.  With 8th-grade educations, my parents knew nothing of college. I don’t think I knew anyone who had gone to college other than school teachers and our family doctors.

I managed to make it to a four-year school, Brandeis, through a combination of a college guide book from the public library, generous financial aid, and no small amount of dumb luck.  A classic liberal arts school, Brandeis has a mission that “affirms the importance of a broad and critical education in enriching the lives of students and preparing them for full participation in a changing society, capable of promoting their own welfare, yet remaining deeply concerned about the welfare of others.”  That is one vision of higher education.

I had no idea I’d be interested in a “liberal arts” education….whatever that was. Instead, I went to school after telling my parents I’d be a computer science major, even though I’d never touched a computer in my life.  It seemed practical to them (vocational education again!) because in 1980 it was clear that computers were only going to grow in importance. But after my first course in programming (Pascal!), I was bored to death.  In addition, with my mediocre high school prep, I did poorly my first semester and needed to work double-time to catch up with more affluent, better-prepared students.  I also worked half-time to help pay expenses, which added to the challenge.  But I survived these initial bumps, discovered a love of sociology (which I’d never heard of before) and double-majored in that and English.  I managed to acquire and benefit from a liberal arts education, something I could have never imagined ahead of time that I’d do.

In contrast, two of my three siblings went to a local 2-year school that is now part of the state community college system. (The third didn’t attend college.) It was known then as a vocational-technical college with the mission of training “qualified high school graduates as skilled workers to meet the needs of the state”–language that is remarkably similar to Walker’s changes. That is a different vision of higher education.

What they studied is still a little vague to me.  It was some sort of electrical and electronics training.  One brother is a licensed electrician and skilled carpenter who does remodelling jobs on the side, though his main employment has been in a paper mill.  The other brother worked until retirement doing electronics work in a plant that made jet engines.  They both benefitted from their education, on-the-job training and, crucially, the presence of unions in their respective workplaces.

Our family is a mini-case study in the fact that there is no “one size fits all” approach to education.  My brothers would have probably hated a full-blown liberal arts education; neither of them was oriented towards “book learning.”  They–and the majority of people, I imagine–are interested in other things and do other types of work.  In turn, I would have done poorly in a vo-tech program.  I pursued college because I was interested in ideas and learning for learning’s sake.  I had only the vaguest of notions of how this stint in college might someday lead to a job.

We need a range of models for higher education.  I have too much respect for the variety of contributions people make to want to turn everyone into middle class, liberal arts graduates. (It’s never been lost on me that I’ve made a part of my living writing books printed on the sort of paper that my brother once helped to make.) But everyone should get to make a choice about their education.  A liberal arts education–as well as more narrowly tailored job training–should be an option for everyone who wants it.  That’s what well-funded public education is about; increasing access to the type of education that those with limited resources choose to pursue.

As a New Hampshire native, I didn’t have that choice.  In a state with no sales tax and no property tax, the public higher education system was woefully underfunded and much too expensive for me to attend.  I was among the lucky few who experienced a liberal arts education by managing to cobble together Federal financial aid, work-study programs, and significant tuition assistance from an out-of-state private institution.  That’s not a model for broad-based public policy.

So when I hear that Obama wants training for “in-demand” jobs or Walker is trying to meet the state workforce needs, I understand the practical realities that job-training can make in people’s lives.  But when I see such visions accompanied by cuts to public education funding and pitched as a replacement for a broader liberal arts tradition, I see only the furthering of social and economic inequality.