We are in the mess we are in politically, economically and socially, largely because conservative politicians have been successful in creating this narrative of “degree = job”; “college = well trained work force”. Power hungry politicians need one key ingredient to rule the day: a passive, uninformed, obedient labor pool, i.e., people who are just happy they have a job, do their job and ask no questions. The main enemy of this agenda historically has been higher education, i.e., “liberal professors who corrupt our youth!” When higher education works as it was intended, young people learn about science. They learn about history. They learn about language and rhetoric. They learn about society. They learn about different worldviews. They learn how to think critically. They learn things are not always as they seem. They learn how to recognize problems and ask questions. They learn how to research and find answers. They learn how to analyze and interpret data and rhetoric. They are not easily duped by logical fallacies, conspiracy theories, and charismatic fearmongering.
An informed citizen who can vote is, therefore, a threat to a self-serving politician. So, what has the Republican party done? Realizing they cannot win over an informed, critical-thinking electorate, they focused on a new market: conservative, Evangelicals—people groomed to accept things by faith even if it means ignoring clear evidence to the contrary. (or to put it another way, they will vote for anyone as long as he or she promises to try to overturn Roe v Wade, roll back protection of gays, support Israel, or whatever so-called “moral” issue possesses them). The rise of the Religious Right put them in power, but it cannot keep them there because the US is becoming more secular. Polls show that Americans may still say they believe in God, but they are less religious than they have ever been.
So, what is a political party with an agenda to control to do? It must attempt to create more uninformed voters to manipulate. But how can it do that when more people than ever are going to college to become informed? The answer is change the meaning and function of college. Instead of having the noble goal of creating an informed electorate with broad knowledge, personal discipline and critical thinking skills to preserve democracy through casting informed ballots, they have attempted to make us believe that one should go to college “to get a good job.” It’s all about a job. It seems so subtle, so innocuous. What is the big deal?
By reducing the idea of a degree to a job, they shift the narrative from raising the question of, “What do I need to know in order to be a productive member of society?” to “What do I need to know to do this job?” That question then becomes the driving force behind every decision from which school to attend to which degree to pursue to which electives to take. Degree programs become evaluated based on the size of the paycheck they lead to. Classes become evaluated by who is the easiest professor with the least requirements (Remember, students are in college to get a credential to do a job, not to be challenged to think).
So for the past several decades the number of business degrees, law degrees, and specialty skill-related degrees (like nursing, computer programming, engineering, etc.) have exploded. Conservative state governments have cut funding to higher education to try to force more “private partnerships”, i.e., have industry pull the strings on what courses are offered and further transform higher education into workforce development. Government supervised accrediting boards force academic programs to show how their degrees translate into jobs in the industries directly tied to the degree. As a result, students take fewer general education courses and electives, take more and more courses that focus on niche workforce goals, are given more “life experience” credits, and do more internships.
Take more courses in English? Why? I won’t be writing letters or essays in my job. Read a book? Man, I don’t like to read. I learn by doing, not reading. Take a philosophy course? Why? My boss will not be paying me to sit and ponder life’s problems. Take a world history course? How is that going to help me in a job interview? Take a cultural anthropology course? You must be joking; I am not going to need to know about the culture of any people outside of my office. Take college algebra? Seriously, I am not going to be doing math problems at work. Psychology and sociology? Please, just give me an extra course or two in marketing and sales, instead. Sign up for a course in interpersonal communication? I am going to be an accountant; I won’t have to interact with people. Art appreciation and music appreciation? What, you think I am going to work in a museum or a symphony? On and on it goes.
The result is that we have more people with degrees but they are less educated, less informed, less prepared to contribute to society, less able to discern and apply logic, less able to think critically and articulate sound arguments, less able to separate fact from fiction, less likely to second guess authority or criticize their boss, less likely to understand ethics, and less prepared to preserve democracy. We have people with diplomas but from a dumbed-down curriculum that has been gutted of essential general education and humanities core courses and electives.
I may be spitting in the wind. I may be trying to hold back a tidal wave, but here I stand spitting. Perhaps someday, someone will heed the alarm that I and others in academia are sounding. I hope it won’t be too late.