Saunders: Governor, education is about much more than just jobs

bsaunders@newsobserver.comJanuary 30, 2013 

Several years ago while in London trying to act like a hip world traveler, I hopped into one of those big black taxicabs and, quite haughtily, instructed the driver to take me to a world-renowned street.

Of course, being from Rockingham, I badly mispronounced the street name. “Driver, take me to Suh-villlllllle Row,” I said confidently.

A look of incomprehension came upon the driver’s face as I kept trying to tell him where I wanted to go. He finally turned around and, exasperatedly, asked, “What’s that, Governor?”

Alas, “What’s that, Governor?” is precisely what many people in North Carolina are asking these days after Gov. Pat McCrory went on the radio and expressed his desire to fund higher education “not based on butts in seats but how many of those butts can get jobs.”

Get jobs? Is that all an education is supposed to teach us to do? Man, it’s a good thing Terry Sanford, who was known as the “education governor,” isn’t around to hear one of his successors express such a base sentiment.

McCrory went onto the radio program of William “Do as I say, not as I do” Bennett to express his view that an education should prepare one to work, nothing more, and to deride the importance of a liberal arts education. Of course, McCrory has a liberal arts degree and Bennett has a PhD in political philosophy — a degree which allows him to expound with breathtaking certitude upon any number of subjects and tell everyone else how to live their lives.

Early in the 20th century, Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois famously feuded over how best to educate former slaves and their descendants. DuBois wanted students to obtain a classical education, to appreciate poetry, to study art and to dedicate themselves to higher learning. Booker T., who founded Tuskegee Institute, wanted students to concentrate on manual labor and to realize that “there is as much dignity in tilling a field as in writing a poem.”

Neither was wrong. It’s good to know the works of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and those other dudes with three names, but I also wish I’d learned a trade in school —like carpentry. When I noticed all of those sharp saws — and then saw that the shop teacher had only three fingers — I decided to cast my lot with stuff that could help me learn to think critically.

Knowing is better

Do we now have an uncritical-thinking governor who sees no glory in reading or writing a poem, in studying gender or philosophy, in learning for learning’s sake simply because knowing is better than not knowing? Does he really think that an education should only equip one to find a job?

We reported this week that McCrory told Bennett that he has instructed his staff to draft legislation that could alter the state money that universities and colleges receive based on the schools’ ability to teach students to find employment. He singled out for criticism gender studies and philosophy.

Translation: Teach what the governor thinks you should teach, or he’s going to mess with the schools’ money.

Not just for feminists

Crystal Chambers, an associate professor of Higher Education Leadership at East Carolina University, called the governor’s comments and ideas “disconcerting.”

“Gender studies is not just about bra-burning feminists marching for their rights,” she said. It also studies important men’s issues and tries to address them, Chambers added.

For instance, she noted that because women “outpace men in college enrollments and completions, researchers are trying to identify not only why that is but how to boost the number of males getting degrees.”

“Remember,” Chambers said, “most research institutions are public. Or do we leave this work for Duke” and other private schools?

If Gov. McCrory has his way, we do. Since the governor expresses little appreciation for a liberal arts education, maybe this classic poem by Seymour Tyrone Pettigrew — see, three names — will change his mind.

There once was a governor in Raleigh

Who thought it the sheerest folly

To have butts in the seats

That’d be walking the streets

But couldn’t find a job, by golly.

He said “A school is for learnin’

how you can start earnin’

even if it means pushing a dollie.

Of course, then you’d have to live

Quite fru-gally.

Sure, there is dignity in being an accountant, a lawyer, a doctor. Who the heck, though, wants a one-trick accountant who knows only how to find a deduction or balance a spreadsheet, a lawyer who only knows legal precedents, a doctor who knows only how to remove a spleen?

Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “The secret of education lies in respecting the pupil. It is not for you to choose what he shall know, what he shall do. It is chosen and foreordained and he only holds the key to his own secret.”

Got that, Governor?

bsaunders@newsobserver.com or 919-836-2811

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