Should Universities Move Away From a Liberal Arts Education?

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

The conventional wisdom these days is that the United States needs more people trained in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). In a future with global competition built around advanced manufacturing, the thinking goes, young Americans are going to need those skills to succeed.

How to translate that need into a revamped K-12 and higher education system, though, is an ongoing debate. President Obama wants to recruit and train 100,000 new teachers in the STEM subjects. The Common Core standards, which will be implemented in nearly every state starting next year, are tailored toward STEM. But a few conservative governors want to go a step farther. They've suggested it's time to stop spending money on a traditional liberal arts education and instead focus our resources on classes and degrees connected directly to those new jobs in advanced manufacturing.

North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory caused an uproar a few months ago when he claimed that an "educational elite" had created a college curriculum that doesn't benefit students and doesn't guarantee that they'll be employed when they enter the real world. "If you want to take a gender studies course, that's fine. Go to a private school, and take it," McCrory said in an interview with conservative talk show host Bill Bennett. "But I don't want to subsidize that if that's not going to get someone a job."

McCrory isn't the only one to voice that kind of sentiment. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker said at the end of last year that he wanted to target state funds in part based on whether the state's colleges and universities are enrolling students in high-demand majors, such as the STEM fields. "If you want money, we need you to perform," Walker said in a well-publicized speech. "In higher education, that means not only degrees, but are young people getting degrees in jobs that are open and needed today -- not just the jobs that the universities want to give us, or degrees that people want to give us."

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