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Higher Education is not workforce development

By Sam Terry
Managing Editor
Jobe Publishing, Inc.
April 14, 2016

Every few years there is a new phenomenon that bedazzles some of the public but almost always grabs the attention of politicians.  At the moment, it is workforce development.  It’s mentioned everywhere from local government and industrial recruitment meetings, legislative committee hearings, state press conferences, education think tanks to political stump speeches.  More than a few people whose voices are in the news frequently have adopted the misguided notion that education, especially higher education, exists to serve industry.  It does not.

Quite a few political figures seem to think that a solid liberal arts education isn’t worth much.  Perhaps some don’t realize the “liberal” in “liberal arts” has nothing to do with politics.

Last week, Lt. Gov. Jenean Hampton found herself in the middle of an uproar when she told the editorial board of Eastern Kentucky University’s student newspaper that she wouldn’t recommend studying history but instead would focus on a major than would land a job.  She also suggested that a college education was “a privilege” and “not a right.”  Earlier this year, Gov. Matt Bevin didn’t seem to think students of French Literature were going to be very successful and shouldn’t be getting a college education from a school receiving taxpayer support.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker wanted to remove “search for truth” and “improve the human condition” from the University of Wisconsin’s mission statement and replace them with “meet the state’s workforce needs.”  Former presidential candidate Jeb Bush suggested that a liberal arts education was good but those graduates would be working at Chick-fil-A.  The examples are plentiful.

Somewhere along the way, many people have espoused the idea that a worthwhile college education would result in a guaranteed job.  They seem to think that America’s businesses don’t need employees with a broad based education but rather a specialized degree that immediately leads to a job.

The reality is that those highly specialized degrees leading to jobs sometimes become obsolete in our rapidly changing world.  The other reality is that the liberal arts graduate has been trained to think creatively – they’re the people who solve problems and excel in communicating with others – two areas where we need help.  Some business leaders have suggested that the difference is a person who knows how to do things will always have a job, but it’s the person who knows why who will be their boss.

Education is not merely to answer industry’s call for workers as some would have us believe.  John McCardell, the University of the South’s vice chancellor, notes that a liberal arts education builds resilience and the ability to lead a purposeful life.  A broad education provides students with more than particular skills or knowledge for the sole purpose of getting a job.  Students whose education is so specialized stand a good chance of becoming obsolete in what they can offer an employer when the need for their job no longer exists.

These notions are found in our public K-12 schools as well.  Teachers are frustrated that so much of what they must teach is geared toward students being able to pass a standardized test.  We’ve all heard the phrase “teaching to the test.”  It’s the very thing that smothers creativity, resourcefulness, and curiosity but it will produce students who can pass a standardized test and still know little about the subject nor have the ability to apply it to their lives or work.

There is nothing wrong with workforce development programs.  Yes, we need well-trained technicians but we also need people who understand history, the languages of the world whether they are dead or alive, the arts, psychology, sociology, anthropology, who think in terms of long-range rather than short-sighted.  We need well-rounded citizens who can offer solutions for our state and our nation.  Education is about enriching lives and reaching higher.

Today’s economy is global and it’s driven by creativity, imagination, and innovation – the very things that a liberal arts education provides. One of the greatest minds of the 20th century, Steve Jobs, the founder of Apple Computer, said, “It’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields the results that make our hearts sing.”

We need to invest in public education that embraces the whole so that we will be producing the leading innovators of the 21st century, not just training the workers who implement other people’s ideas.

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