Education is Labor, Right?

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W.J. Astore

So, the Trump Administration wants to merge the Department of Education with Labor.  What a surprise.  According to Mick Mulvaney, the Director of the Office of Management and Budget, “They’re [Education and Labor] doing the same thing.  Trying to get people ready for the workforce, sometimes it’s education, sometimes it’s vocational training – but all doing the same thing, so why not put them in the same place?”

I saw this push for education as workforce development when I was a professor of history in Pennsylvania.  Education was largely reduced to vocational training, in partnership with business and industry.  My classes in history (including the social history of technology) were essentially “filler” classes, and indeed I had a student tell me he might see me again if he needed another “filler” class.  I wasn’t angry; I was amused at how perceptive and honest the student was.

Of course, America will always have the Ivy League.  Education as training for a job won’t really drive the curriculum at Yale or Harvard or Princeton.  You can still get a decent liberal arts education in America, assuming you have money.  But if you don’t, it’s off to “workforce training” for you.

When I was still teaching, I used to argue that my history classes were especially valuable to students at the college where I taught since they might be the only college-level course in history that they’d ever experience.  I’d argue that plumbers and welders and nurses needed to know history too.  Why?  Because they’re not just aspiring plumbers and welders and nurses — they’re American citizens, and the health of our democracy is based on a well-informed and broadly educated citizenry.

The Trump Administration doesn’t want such a citizenry.  Their vision of education is not about creative and critical thinking, and it certainly isn’t about challenging authority.  Rather, it’s about job training, workforce development, preparing people for a lifetime of labor — and supine obedience.

Well, as our “stable genius” president said, “I love the poorly educated.”  Under this latest proposal, he’s putting his “love” into practice.

An Addendum: When you treat education as a business, as administrators have been doing in higher ed, is it any surprise when education is reduced to a feeder and filler for labor, for business and industry, for the workforce?  As a professor, I had plenty of experience with administrators who sold education as a commodity, who talked about students as “customers” and professors as “providers” of a product.  One high-level administrator insisted that we professors meet our students “at their point of need.”  Another big push when I was a professor was on retention.  Keep those students in college!  If only to keep enrollment up and the tuition dollars flowing.

We have reduced education to a business and classes to commodities, so why not combine education with labor?  It makes perfect sense … and supports perfectly authoritarian rule.

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?