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Ignorance About Education

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Ignorance has many powerful advantages over knowledge. Typically it is simple and easy to communicate, while knowledge, by its very nature, usually tends to be nuanced and complex. Ignorance requires no evidence and no research. It can be endlessly repeated and rapidly spread. It inflames passions. Its pervasiveness wears down those who attempt to combat it. And, often, it seems so outlandish and so -- well, so ignorant -- that it tends to be dismissed and underestimated by those in a position to know better: until it begins to take hold and become a kind of orthodoxy, by which point the damage is very hard to undo.

Which brings me to North Carolina Governor Patrick McCrory.

Appearing on a radio program hosted by the indefatigable Bill Bennett, who has mastered the art of replacing evidence with polemic, Governor McCrory said the following:

I'm looking at legislation right now -- in fact, I just instructed my staff yesterday to go ahead and develop legislation -- which would change the basic formula in how education money is given out to our universities and our community colleges. It's not based on butts in seats but on how many of those butts can get jobs.

Then he dove thoughtfully into specifics: "If you want to take gender studies that's fine, go to a private school and take it. But I don't want to subsidize that if that's not going to get someone a job." Asked by Bennett (who has a Ph.D. in philosophy from a subsidized public university), "How many Ph.D.'s in philosophy do I need to subsidize?", Governor McCrory responded, "You and I agree," by which he presumably meant about the foolishness of subsidizing the study of philosophy, though I suspect the areas of agreement are considerably broader.

(Excuse me for a moment while I pause to breathe deeply.)

I so wish I lived in a world in which remarks of this kind could be called out as ignorant and summarily dismissed. But I don't, and they can't, and those of us who actually rely on evidence and information and who choose to remain silent in the face of remarks of this kind are complicit in the dumbing down of our public discourse and the failures of our public policy.

Governor McCrory's remarks are based on the following unsubstantiated assumptions: that public education has as its sole purpose in a democracy the preparation for a job; that one can predict based upon a student's area of study the employability and career path of that student; that one can know today where the jobs will be in 10 or 20 years; that the skills most necessary for the generation of economic success and strong civil society in the 21st century are only taught in certain fields, which can be identified in advance and therefore appropriately funded by legislators; that the current public investment in an institution like the University of North Carolina is, in its present form, a bad one. This is not an exhaustive list, but it will do.

Here is what the evidence actually suggests about these assumptions: they are, in order, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, and wrong. On the plus side, they are simple, easy to communicate, and able to get a large number of people riled up.

Of course there are areas in which shortages of appropriately educated workers are harming our economy and our global competitiveness. Some of these require more robust vocational programs within our technical and community colleges, some require the encouragement and support of more students in disciplines such as engineering, computer science, and the life sciences. But it is also more true than ever before that students with a post-secondary education, regardless of major, will on average face lower levels of unemployment and achieve higher levels of income than those without a college degree; that many more graduates will change careers than will remain in the particular career for which their major initially prepared them; that many employers place the highest premium on skills such as critical thinking, creativity, and the ability to work cooperatively, in which a liberal arts education has been shown to provide especially good training; and that public investment in education, at all levels, has a better ROI than virtually any other investment a state or a nation can make.

It is also true that, on a per capita basis, liberal arts colleges send the most students into graduate training in those STEM disciplines -- science, technology, engineering, mathematics -- where jobs are most needed and from which economic growth is most likely to spring. So there seems to be a direct rather than an inverse correlation between being educated in an intellectually broad environment and economic prosperity. The butts in these seats find work.

If Governor McCrory has any evidence that any of these statements is untrue, I would be happy to examine it.

I would be remiss in not acknowledging that there is one powerful piece of evidence to support the argument that a liberal arts education can be unhelpful in developing both judgment and job skills. Governor McCrory is himself a graduate of a liberal arts college with majors in political science and education.

No system is perfect.