North Carolina Governor McCrory recently (January 29, 2013) said that funding for public colleges should be based on employment, not enrollment. “It’s not based on butts in seats but on how many of those butts can get jobs.”

A familiar sentiment.  Getting a job is important.  But training solely for a first job, while sacrificing preparation for a lifelong career, is shortsighted.  Higher education must develop abilities to continue learning through flexibility, curiosity, innovation, and resilience, in an unpredictable world.

McCrory’s comments echo those of other governors – in Texas, Florida, and Wisconsin – questioning the value of liberal arts degrees at public colleges.  Their positions have started to coalesce into a potential Republican agenda on higher education, emphasizing reduced state funding, low tuition prices, vocational training, performance funding for faculty members, state funding tied to job placement in “high demand” fields, and taking on flagship institutions.

Now, we have Michael Reagan attacking lower levels of public education (Waynesboro News Virginian, July 7, 2013).  His “poster child” is a high school senior, of Haitian/Dominican working class background, daughter of a Haitian immigrant, allegedly emerging from public school as a “train wreck,” lacking basic skills.

Reagan’s solution?  “If I still had young kids to educate, I’d send them anywhere but public school.  Catholic school.  Private school.  Home school.  Online schools.  I’d hire tutors.”

Does Reagan believe that an immigrant family, unable to see that their daughter learned basic things despite gaps in schooling, could solve these problems in his preferred settings?  Could they afford private school or hired tutors?  His prescriptions are for the well-off constituency that he so often represents.  They would weaken the public school system.

Yes, the term “liberal” has become troublesome in certain political circles.  But “liberal arts” have always been about freedom, not politics.  They embrace the knowledge that citizens need if they are to govern themselves effectively in a free country.  A growing movement against these arts, and against public education, is ominous and raises fears about ultimate motives.

(Modified version of a Letter to the Editor, Waynesboro News Virginian, published July 8, 2013.)

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