Education as Workforce Development: The Horror

Scott Walker: We don't need no higher education (photo courtesy of Slate)
Scott Walker: We don’t need no higher education (photo courtesy of Slate)

W.J. Astore

A strong trend in higher education today is to sell education as workforce development.  I saw this at the college where I used to teach, which was unsurprising given that the college started as a technical institute in a conservative area.  My college proudly advertised itself as valuing partnerships with business and industry, with a “learn to earn” emphasis, so students and parents knew what they were getting when they made their choice.

But the “education as workforce development” ethos is now spreading to universities and states like Wisconsin, driven by Republican governors and administrations keen to put those pointy-headed intellectuals, with their high-falutin’ ideas about education as a pursuit of truth, firmly in their place.  Consider this article at Alternet, and the following passage about Governor Scott Walker’s ideological war on higher education in his state:

Scott Walker has it out for the University of Wisconsin. The University of Wisconsin is a point of pride for the state at large, to the point where their mascot, the badger, is blanketed over everything Wisconsin-related, including government services that aren’t affiliated with the school. Despite this, Gov. Scott Walker, flushwith confidence after decimating public service unions in Wisconsin, has it out now for the university, apparently not caring that it’s the state’s pride and joy. The goal is to slash a whopping $300 million from the University of Wisconsin system over the next two years.

There may be some lip-smacking about “fiscal conservatism” going on with this, but Walker and his staff haven’t really taken many pains to hide that this is rooted in a deeper hostility to the very idea of knowledge itself. “A harbinger of what Walker might face came in an immediate uproar on social media this month after his staff proposed changing the university’s ethereal focus on the pursuit of truth, known as the ‘Wisconsin Idea,’ to a grittier focus on ‘workforce needs,’” reports theWashington Post. Walker backed off recasting higher education as nothing more than job training after his critics pointed out he is a college dropout, but the fact that this wording change was proposed at all shows that the hostility to education is ideological and has little to nothing to do with saving money.”

Higher education should be dedicated to something higher than the pursuit of a job that serves corporate America.  Heck, even corporate America favors the liberal arts as being invaluable to their bottom line, e.g. in the sense of “soft” skills such as the ability to write and speak clearly, collaborating as a team, fostering creativity and curiosity, and the like.  And this is supported by research, as in this report by the Association of American Colleges & Universities, which “is seriously questioning the drive to turn schools into institutions where the primary mission is offering career and vocational training,” according to a CBS News report:

The report, which was released today, concludes that employers “overwhelmingly” endorse broad learning as the best preparation for long-term career success. Employers who were surveyed for the study said that this broad learning should be an expected part of the course work for all students, regardless of their chosen major or field of study.

More than three out of four employers agreed that every college student should be exposed to the liberal arts and sciences, and employers were nearly unanimous (96 percent) in agreeing that all students should gain knowledge of our democratic institutions, which is done through liberal arts courses.”

 

So, if employers are in favor of liberal arts and the sciences, why are right-wing conservatives like Walker against these subjects?  To ask the question is to answer it.  The push for “workforce development” is all about silencing liberal dissent and squelching critical research.  It’s anti-intellectualism, pure and simple, always a popular trope in America, as Richard Hofstadter noted in his classic book, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life.

Keep ’em dumb and obedient, Walker.  Time-servers in the work trenches.  That’s the way to serve Wisconsin as governor.  Next stop: the presidency.  We don’t need any smart people in that job.  No more Jeffersons need apply.  Right, America?