How to Train Your Draconian

During a talk to governors, Bill Gates might have sharpened the ax for politicians thinking of cutting humanities programs.
March 1, 2011

WASHINGTON -- At a time when every governor is being forced to play budget hawk, most would welcome advice on how to simultaneously cut costs and improve public education from someone who is a venerated authority on both. And while many of the state leaders who attended the National Governors Association over the weekend had left by the time Bill Gates spoke on Monday afternoon, those who remained heard Gates make some loaded remarks about higher education funding.

During a sprawling talk in which he emphasized the importance of using data-based metrics to figure out how to increase educational attainment while bringing down costs in both K-12 and higher ed, Gates said that when the governors are deciding how to allocate precious tax dollars, they might consider the disparity between how much the state subsidizes certain programs and how much those programs contribute to job creation in the state.

“In the college area, everybody should have a sense of which of the colleges -- both community and four-year institutions -- are doing very well,” said Gates, co-chair of the influential Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which is investing heavily in education reform. “You can even break that down by the departments. It’s actually very interesting when you take higher ed and think of it in that way. The amount of subsidization is not that well-correlated to the areas that actually create jobs in the state -- that create income for the state.

“Now, in the past it felt fine to just say, 'OK, we’re over all going to be generous with this sector,' ” he continued. “But in this era, to break down and really say, ‘What are the categories that help fill jobs and drive that state economy in the future?’ -- you’ll find that it’s not across the board in terms of everything that the state subsidizes in higher education.”

Only the assembled governors were permitted to ask follow-up questions, and those who did focused on K-12, so Gates did not elaborate on what might be involved in assessing a university program’s contribution to job creation in a state. But whether he meant to or not, the Microsoft founder might have spooked champions of the liberal arts at public institutions already living in fear of the ax.

Defenders of the liberal arts, especially at public universities, have struggled to come up with a way to prove definitively what many of them believe: that liberal education is crucial to job creation. Vocational programs, whose curriculums are oriented toward teaching specific skills to feed demand in specific industries, are generally able to show their value in more tangible ways than are liberal arts programs, which tend to rely on the faith that their curriculums confer the sort of critical thinking skills that are transferable across different industries and might even give birth to new ones.

Unfortunately, that kind of value is harder to quantify -- and harder to commodify politically. Gates was, after all, talking to a roomful of politicians whose chances at re-election might turn on their ability to show job growth in the short term. With state budget shortfalls expected to total more than $300 billion over the next three years, it seems plausible that Gates’s claim that public money spent on certain academic departments “is not that well-correlated to the areas that actually create jobs” might be taken by certain governors as a strike order on the humanities from a widely respected pragmatist.

The dim employment prospects of the latest crop of humanities Ph.D.s might make this seem like an intuitive call. But while expertise in the humanities might be in low demand, argues Carol Geary Schneider, president of the American Association of Colleges and Universities, the basic lessons of a liberal education are in fact crucial to the long-term employability of nonacademics. And to the extent that they might be taken as a cue to de-fund programs that aren’t part of a pipeline, Schneider said Gates’s comments veered dangerously toward an unenlightened view of the value of higher education.

“It’s my understanding that the Gates Foundation wants to prepare students for ‘work, life and citizenship,’” Schneider wrote in an e-mail reply to an Inside Higher Ed request for comment. “But Gates’s remarks today seem to shave off two-thirds of that vision, while emphasizing a view of work-related learning that is much too narrow and unsettlingly dated. His call to focus on specific fields and departments, rather than whole institutions, implies a sharp dividing line between ‘general education’ and ‘specific majors’ that is, in fact, a relic from before the Cold War.”

What might be good for graduates' employability in the short term might not be so in the long term, Schneider said. “The question to ask is not: which majors do the best in initial job placement, but rather, which institutions are sending their graduates forth with big picture knowledge, strong intellectual skills and the demonstrated ability to integrate and apply diverse kinds of learning to new settings and challenges,” she said. “This is the kind of learning that both employers and civic leaders are pleading with us to design and it’s the kind of learning that a strong liberal education actually provides.”

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