A Wayward Plan in Wisconsin
Having been a faculty member at the University of Wisconsin-Madison for 15 years, I follow the news from the state closely, and was very disappointed to read about Governor Scott Walker’s plan to make significant changes to state funding for education. Governor Walker said a few things about K-12 education and education in the technical college system, but he also said this about how the state should judge the performance of its public universities:
In higher education, that means not only degrees, but are young people getting degrees in jobs that are open and needed today, not just the jobs that the universities want to give us, or degrees that people want to give us?
This approach is wrong for four fundamentally important reasons:
First, economically, the “Walker Plan for Higher Education” seems to be premised on increasing the efficiency of the pipeline from higher education to the economy. But the assumption made by Governor Walker that the state can predict which programs of study would be most beneficial for the state’s economy is false, as demonstrated by some spectacular counterexamples.
Carly Fiorina, one of the most important women in American business today, majored in medieval history and philosophy. Current or recent chief executive officers for some of the most successful companies in the American economy were liberal arts majors, including history (John Loose of Corning and Sam Palmisano of IBM), sociology (Bradbury Anderson of Best Buy), philosophy (Carl Icahn of just about everything, but also currently a major stakeholder in Netflix), economics (Meg Whitman of Hewlett Packard and Donald Trump of, well, Donald Trump), and Asian studies (Sue Krosnick of Federated Department Stores). It’s not just business leaders who majored in the liberal arts. Many in government, including several Supreme Court justices, were liberal arts majors as well. Elena Kagan, John Roberts, Antonin Scalia, and Sonia Sotomayor all majored in history.
Second, the “Walker Plan” is wrong philosophically. Governor Walker’s political party has emphasized its opposition to allowing the government to “pick winners and losers,” rather than allowing the free market to do so. If a state agency is charged with the selection of academic programs for which students would be eligible for state funding, the state would be responsible for picking “winners and losers” in higher education. This is reminiscent of a Soviet model of education in which the state paid for students’ education and then assigned graduates to their first jobs, at which they were legally obligated to work for a number of years.
Governor Walker has yet to identify the agency charged with the task of identifying the programs eligible for funding or the criteria according to which the selection would be made. Still, I wonder if those making such choices will have the critical thinking and problem-solving skills necessary to make wise decisions when confronted with complex datasets. I wonder if the study of Arabic or Pashto would have seemed worthy of funding in Wisconsin in the year 2000, or even 2002, given that a commitment to understanding the regions where these languages are spoken may seem more like a national concern than a concern of the state of Wisconsin. Of course, we have no federal university to address federal concerns: all our public institutions of higher education are state-based institutions. I wonder who Governor Walker will tap to predict what Wisconsin’s (or our nation’s) strategic needs will be 20 years from now, because if you decide to fund a university program now, you must be prepared to spend at least that long building up the expertise to make that program a success.
Third, Governor Walker’s proposal will not help students. It will hurt them. As a college dean, I have seen far too many students miserable because they are majoring in a course of study for which they have no intellectual passion only because their parents believe that program is linked to a well-paid career track. These students, almost uniformly, fail to excel. Students who major in programs for which they have great passion get higher grades and establish better relationships with their faculty mentors. They find it easier to move forward from graduation to a job or postgraduate study because they have a record of success in college.
Fourth, and most importantly, I object to Governor Walker’s proposal because it rises from a fundamentally flawed understanding of the purpose of the liberal arts in higher education. We are not training students for a job. We are training students for a lifetime of jobs, for a career, and for their best job by providing them with an education that emphasizes the development of critical thinking about challenging and complex problems, creative problem-solving, effective communication in speech and writing, ethical reasoning and compassion, the ability to work with diverse partners, the skills to use technology wisely, and the foundation to participate fully in our American democracy.
Some experts predict that today’s young people will change jobs more than a dozen times during the course of their working lives and that many of those job changes will be career changes. We should focus on teaching our students, not facts that they can memorize and regurgitate, but skills they can use to analyze an ever-changing array of data, construct sound arguments on the basis of those data, and communicate those arguments effectively.
Benjamin Rifkin is dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at the College of New Jersey.
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