Yesterday, I talked about the challenges the University of Michigan’s new president faces. One of those is, of course, the fact that it is becoming increasingly difficult to afford an education.
That provoked a lot of reaction, and I was surprised by the tone of a lot of it.
Specifically, many people feel that especially with the lagging economy, it makes no sense for students to study things that won’t clearly pay off in a job.
"There's nothing wrong with art appreciation. There are plenty of books, DVDs and YouTube clips out there," one man said. But he thought it was outrageous that someone would spend a vast amount of money on something "that will turn out to be a nice hobby," and then "complain about the lack of job opportunities."
He also seemed to think that offering degrees that didn’t immediately promise well-paying jobs were a waste of taxpayer dollars, adding, "we definitely don’t need multiple universities offering the same marginal degree."
Well, I can tell you that many immigrants to this country feel the same way.
Just go to graduation ceremonies at nearly any Michigan university and see who gets degrees in what.
At Wayne State the lists of engineering grads, for example, are always dominated by students with Asian and Arabic names. Their parents expect education to be an investment that will pay off in the ability to make a living.
This isn’t exactly a new idea.
During the American Revolution, John Adams wrote, “I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy … commerce and agriculture in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry and porcelain.”
Art appreciation, in other words.
Actually, I’ve never met anyone with a degree in art appreciation, but I’ve met many people in what you might call practical occupations who were far deeper and better at what they did because they had learned to appreciate art.
Yes, people need away to earn a living, but those who sneer at liberal arts are forgetting two things.
First, education is more than narrow technical knowledge. The Taliban has engineers.
Education is about the entire human being reaching their full potential.
Besides, in my experience, not very many 18 to 22 year-olds know what their life’s work should be.
To an extent, arguing about what students should study is a distraction from the main point, best expressed to me yesterday by former Congressman and State Sen. Joe Schwarz.
Schwarz, a Republican, chaired the Senate higher education committee for years.
Yesterday he said, “It is truly difficult for me to understand why the Legislature and the governor continue to believe Michigan can continue to grossly under fund higher ed.”
A physician himself, Schwarz added, “How the hell can we make the claim that Michigan absolutely must have more qualified college grads for high-skilled jobs, then turn around and beggar the selfsame universities that train the people we need?”
That’s the real problem, not what students are studying.
You don’t have to be Socrates to see that we are starving our future, and doing so to our own peril.