Obama the Pragmatist

From today’s edition of Inside Higher Education:

In remarks kicking off a White House forum on job creation and the economy, President Obama repeatedly stressed the role of higher education. “I want to hear about what unions and universities can do to better support and prepare our workers — not just for the jobs of today, but for the jobs five years from now and 10 years from now and 50 years from now,” he said. “We still have the best universities in the world. We’ve got some of the finest science and technology in the world, we’ve got the most entrepreneurial spirit in the world, and we’ve got some of the most productive workers in the world.” The Obama discussion of job creation continues today when the president will visit Lehigh Carbon Community College

The nation’s universities have already implicitly justified their existence – and expense – to a generation or more of students that the main reason for attending university is to attain the necessary credential for potential employers.  Universities uniformly have one devoted office or center that is dedicated to helping students make the transition into post-graduate life, namely and inevitably a “Career Services Center” (by contrast, there is no “Family Preparation” or “Transition to Being a Citizen and Neighbor” centers).   Understanding well this implicit promise, alumni have begun suing their alma maters when their post-graduate job search has proven unsuccessful, and many believe such lawsuits to be anything but unjustified or frivolous.

President Obama has taken seriously his responsibility to use the “bully pulpit” (indeed, he seems at times more prone to jawbone problems than take the lead in actually advancing real solutions).  Admirably, his wife has set a good example by growing an organic garden on the White House lawn – “the most significant small plot of land in America,” according to Wendell Berry in his recent interview with Diane Rehm (listen at about the 24th minute).  But the President is doing great damage in his constant reiteration of the view that our universities and colleges should be seen solely as places of job preparation.  This can only deepen the pervasive careerism that pervades our institutions of higher education.

Our universities and colleges were once devoted to the ideals of the “liberal arts.”  The liberal arts were oriented to teaching its students the art of being free, the art of attaining liberty.  That art is above all the art of self-government, the art of learning the bounds of what is appropriate for human beings.   Moreover, necessarily such an undertaking was an education in citizenship, the hallmark of the person educated for liberty (not bondage).  By necessity, such an education oriented its charges toward res publica, toward public dedications that transcended narrowly private interest.

The current emphasis on “career preparation” is a profound betrayal of this ideal of the liberal arts, and can only further damage the frayed and perhaps irreparably degraded moral fabric of the nation.  This emphasis elicits in two simultaneous dispositions among students:  a utilitarian worldview that views all aspects of education as means for one purpose – a job, or more narrowly, “money-making” – and the transformation of the object of education of one devoted to commonweal to narrowly private interest.

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