Thomas Jefferson--yes, the Thomas Jefferson who was the principal author of the Declaration of Independence and the third president of the U.S.--was also the founder of one of America's earliest public institutions of higher learning, the University of Virginia, in 1819. The Father of UVA said, "This institution of my native state, the hobby of my old age, will be based on the illimitable freedom of the human mind, to explore and to expose every subject susceptible of its contemplation." Jefferson’s vision was for UVA to be an “institution on which the fortunes of our country may depend more than may meet the general eye.” (Source: http://www.monticello.org/site/jefferson/quotations-university-virginia).
Read those two quotes from fathers of the American public university system, and ask yourself the question, what is the reason why these early public universities were established? What would Baldwin or Jefferson have said is the goal of higher education? What reason would they have given for people to attend college and earn a degree? Would they have said, "For this great American experiment to succeed we will need a highly skilled workforce"? Would they have argued, "We are on the eve of a great industrial revolution that will call for the retraining of American workers"? I think it is clear that the founders of American public universities recognized an intrinsic value in being well educated. The goal was to enlighten the minds of the American people in such a way as to benefit the individual and also secure the freedom and development of American society. By developing the discipline of study and broadening the horizons of the mind in students, the university system would produce a citizenry that could make informed decisions, develop and maintain just laws and civilized society, and not be blinded by ignorance, fooled by rhetoric, and fall victim to unscrupulous entrepreneurs and politicians.
Ads for online degree programs flood Web banners and television. The University of Phoenix, DeVry University, and the like communicate a singular message: Earn a degree so that you can get the job you want. Nothing is mentioned about freeing the power of human mind. Nothing is said of learning discipline and principles to enrich society. No word is made about the intrinsic value of an education and learning important lessons of history, contemplating the major dilemmas of humanity, becoming fluent writers and public speakers, or gaining social capital through a basic knowledge of the Arts and Sciences. No, no, a thousand times no! It is all about, "We give you the skills (not knowledge, mind you) to train you (not educate you), so that you can enter the workforce (not enter society as an enlightened individual able to utilize critical thinking skills). Now, I admit that technical and trade schools provide a valuable service for people who do not meet the entrance criteria or who are not interested in a 4-year degree, but I am presently writing in defense of a liberal arts education against the popular opinion that earning a degree is simply a means to the end of obtaining a good job.
As a college professor, I bemoan what I view as the systematic dismantling of public universities from places to promote critical thinking to challenge old paradigms and reconstructing them into residency programs for workforce development. I am appalled by all the QEPs and accreditation policies and procedures that evaluate degree programs outcomes only (or primarily) in terms of how they translate into jobs. I am offended by articles and editorials that rank degrees by associated incomes and judge degrees as “useless” if they do not land recipients a high-paying job (e.g., http://www.thedailybeast.com/galleries/2011/04/27/20-most-useless-degrees.html; and http://www.businessinsider.com/the-10-most-useless-graduate-degrees-2013-9) I reject the adoption of the business model approach to higher education that treats students as consumers who have to be satisfied customers—after all they are paying good money and should be able to expect to get a degree. This leads to situations in which if a student takes math seven times and never makes the "C" required to pass, then academic affairs will just lower the requirement to pass to a "D." Think about it, when Americans pay money for a product they expect to get a satisfaction-guaranteed-or-your-money-back promise. And students bring this consumer mentality with them when they “shop” for a college.
When I go to a retail store, I generally have a recognized need for a product, and I know that multiple retailers stock the product. Therefore, I look for the biggest bang for my buck. I expect the retailer to provide good customer service if they want my money. I will order it online with free shipping, if the price is better. But comparing this scenario to students taking college classes is a false analogy. I dare say that the average 18-19 year-old college freshmen does not recognize the need for much of the “products” I “sell” in the classroom. They do not appreciate courses in the humanities because they do not see an immediate and practical application to their lives or a direct correlation between the subject matter and their chosen career. Because they are at school to get a degree to get a job, what matters is not learning; what matters is merely passing the course and progressing toward degree completion. The goal becomes to get the degree as quickly and efficiently as possible.
This type of system rewards students who follow the path of least resistance. They go to ratemyprofessors.com and they look not for who is the best professor, who will challenge them the most, who will teach them the most; instead, they look for who is rated the easiest, who requires the least, who expects the least, who grades the easiest, and, of course, who has a chili pepper "hottness" rating. They do the minimum required work. They are happy to get their “C” or “D” (which might even be an “A” or “B” in the easy instructor’s class) just so they progress down the path to getting the piece of paper that secures them the job. And if an instructor tries to push them to actually learn something and actually earn an “A” or “B” in the class, and actually expects them to show up to class and pay attention in class, well then that instructor will get low marks on the customer satisfaction survey at the end of the semester.
And, yes, because we have adopted the business model, those surveys impact the instructor’s rating and potential for earning tenure, getting a promotion or pay raise, etc. The students will also complain to the deans and threaten to take their business elsewhere. Indirect pressure will then be applied to the instructor to remember how competitive the market is and how overly committed our students are these days. I wonder if the increased classroom sizes and teaching loads are really a result of budget cuts or a deliberate attempt to make it more difficult for instructors to enforce rigorous standards. If instructors have larger classes and more sections of them to teach, then that means fewer speeches in speech class, fewer essays in English class, less problem sets in math class, shorter term papers in history class, and so on.
The end result is we are now mass producing degrees that in many cases are not worth the paper on which they are printed. We are graduating more students with degrees. They graduate knowing how to perform skills to do a job. They know the expectations of their future employers. They have been pre-programmed to go out and plug in to the job market efficiently. In many cases they will fill a job, earn a fair salary, and pay taxes. But, they do not know how to evaluate and challenge the ethics of the practices of the company for which they work. They do not know how to contemplate ethical questions that have profound implications for society. They will make Facebook posts, but not know the difference in there, their, or they're. They will send e-mails full of grammar and syntax problems. They will live in the moment, but have no perspective of history to safeguard against repeating its mistakes. They will go to the ballot box, but will not have the critical thinking skills to sift through the political rhetoric and cast an informed vote. They will pass through museums and theaters while keeping their eyes glued to their phones because they do not know how to appreciate fine art. They will perhaps keep a job and make a decent living, but they will feel unfulfilled because they chose a major based on potential career earnings, and they did not pursue their passions, explore their curiosities, or feed their souls while they were in college. They stuck to their degree plan and took no extra electives simply for the pleasure of learning something new. Like shrewd business managers, they efficiently worked and manipulated the college system to “earn” their degrees. And I guess from a business perspective, they will have gotten their money’s worth. They got a piece of paper, and they got a job. If only the public university had not sold its soul, turned its back on its founding mission, they could have actually received a well-rounded liberal arts education and not simply a glorified vo-tech degree.
Oh, and for those who still think a degree should be about the job and that humanities degrees are "useless," even though I fundamentally disagree with these types of surveys, here is a link to a story about a few millionaires and billionaires who would disagree: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/01/28/the-unusual-college-major_n_4654757.html?ncid=edlinkusaolp00000009