As a scholar who studies the former Soviet Union, I found Gov. Pat McCrorys proposal to cut funding from liberal arts courses in higher education eerily familiar.
McCrory said last week that state funds should not be used for courses that do not directly prepare students for well-defined occupational categories; instead, state money should go to programs that prepare students for jobs that the market needs. McCrorys plans for higher education funding closely resemble the worst aspects of centralized Soviet planning.
The Soviet Union was governed by a one-party system that dictated societys values and needs, and identified the appropriate way that citizens should mold their lives to fulfill those needs.
Higher education played a crucial role in training workers to do just that. Planners calculated how many teachers, doctors, bus drivers, engineers and army officers were needed for the next five-year plan, and higher education institutes opened up the corresponding numbers of slots for applicants. Students studied the topics the state declared relevant, along with a requisite dose of Marxist-Leninist dogma.
The system was constraining and often boring, but talented and creative teachers found surreptitious ways to inspire their students. Their courageous perseverance emerged in underground writing, in allegorical language, in stolen moments and marginal spaces that escaped the dominating surveillance of the state. Yet because they were not given resources provided at public cost, the amount and the expansiveness of their creative endeavors was severely limited.
University programs structured solely to meet the needs of the state or labor market were not only boring, they also created obstacles that prevented students from learning how to question their society. The official curriculum did not provide Soviet students opportunities to examine why their industry produced certain kinds of goods, such as tanks and rockets, but not other products, from contraceptives to Bibles. It provided no opportunity to recognize and question why people with disabilities were viewed as shameful and hidden away.
The focus on the states labor needs thwarted the broadening of students imaginative horizons beyond the existing status quo, by analyzing, for example, the historical ideas and contradictions underlying the current ways the economy is organized. Nor did Soviet labor-market education create opportunities to see mainstream history through the eyes of minorities, or to ask why the society didn't live up to its political ideals.
While the Soviets were very good at training people who were technically proficient in a variety of endeavors, they also created a stultifying atmosphere in which creativity, innovation and independent thought were suspect or worse.
McCrorys notion that the needs of the marketplace should organize the studies available in higher education recalls that socialist system. It allows the government to decide what jobs the market should provide and how people should be trained to do those jobs. In effect, this makes government the dictator, determining what counts as relevant.
Now, its true that McCrorys proposal is not fully socialist: The Soviet Union provided higher education free and guaranteed graduates full employment throughout their lives. I havent heard our Republican governor extend his concern for our students to that generous extent.
But his devotion to market values and to his singular insistence that he knows whats best evokes troubling similarities to the one-party ideology of the Soviet system. It is a form of quasi-market-based authoritarianism.
His vision of higher education is a direct attack against democratic inquiry and the preparation of citizens capable of reflecting intelligently on their history and society.
Michele Rivkin-Fish is associate professor of anthropology at UNC-Chapel Hill.