Martinez: McCrory's correct comments bring overdue look at relevance

January 31, 2013 

Gov. Pat McCrory got it right when he questioned the value of certain liberal arts fields of study as practiced and subsidized today in North Carolina.

The backlash he has received over his comments to talk show host Bill Bennett has only served to underscore the need for a serious reassessment. Specifically, the governor and others want to tie education funding to performance-based formulas that include graduation rates (which are embarrassingly low at some state institutions) and the success of those graduates in finding jobs. That would be a big change to the status quo, which is to shovel money toward the universities based primarily on enrollment.

So why is the academy so upset? McCrory didn’t say he wants to defund the liberal arts and turn the university system into UNC-Tech. In fact, he cited the benefits of his own liberal arts education and the view of nearly all business leaders about the economic value of a well-rounded university education. It was the new governor’s audacity to publicly question the value of some liberal arts courses – specifically gender and ethnic studies – and to wonder aloud to what degree they deserve taxpayer subsidies that kicked off the firestorm.

I have the same questions as the governor. For example, what do these programs produce beyond instructors, counselors and support staff for the next generation of ethnic and gender study departments? Has the scholarship in these fields progressed beyond the perpetuation of victimhood?

Asking such questions isn’t sexist, racist or anti-liberal arts. This is about examining relevance and value. This is common practice in nearly every field except – or so it seems – public higher education.

One would think that defenders of the liberal arts would embrace rather than condemn critical examination and qualitative measurement.

For too long we’ve measured “education governors” simply by the amount of money they’ve steered to the education bureaucracy. McCrory’s push for performance-based funding champions the end-users of education: students, taxpayers and the people who pay the tuition bills.

More troubling than anything the governor said are suggestions made to this newspaper by liberal arts champions, including some faculty members, that teaching college students skills would produce a generation of nonthinkers. That attitude is more than intellectual arrogance. It’s intellectual isolationism.

As anyone who works in a skills-based occupation can readily attest, things rarely go as planned. Getting the job done often requires creative thinking, communication and problem-solving on a daily basis. To insinuate that students who graduate with specific skills are nonthinkers is akin to saying that those in basic research have superior intellect over those in the applied sciences. There are first-class thinkers in every walk of life.

Not only do I hope McCrory keeps talking about this, I also hope he delves into the tougher philosophical question of who should be responsible for paying for higher education. For generations, the mission was to educate the elite based on the premise that these educated (primarily) men would be equipped to contribute to the greater good of society. The theory was that their contributions justified the significant public subsidy of their education.

But that model is on the wane. Today, higher education is more accessible to women, minorities and lower-income students, and their priority is a degree, a marketable skill, as well as an appreciation for the liberal arts.

I have no problem with this new model. But it’s only fair that if the acquisition of skills provides primarily personal, economic and professional benefits, then these students should pick up a larger share of the cost of their personal education. In other words, I don’t think it’s right to ask the 74 percent of North Carolinians who do not have bachelor’s degrees or higher to subsidize the educations of the 26 percent of state residents who do.

Like it or not, higher education is at a crossroads. McCrory’s challenge about the relationship between relevance and funding is not only welcome, it’s long overdue.

Contributing columnist Rick Martinez (rickjmartinez2@gmail.com) is news director at WPTF, NC News Network and SGRToday.com

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