Swans Commentary » swans.com November 4, 2013  



Education, Academia, The Job Market


by Harvey E. Whitney, Jr.



Pic: "Shredding a diploma" - Size: 11k
Shredding a diploma



(Swans - November 4, 2013)   Well, the United States veered close to the edge of the precipice of a debt default and managed to avert it while also ending the government shutdown. When I observed the squabbling and bickering between senators and congress people over ideology -- the reason these precarious situations have arisen -- I could not help but think of Jack Nicholson's character in the landmark 1969 film Easy Rider. He pondered aloud to Peter Fonda's and Dennis Hopper's characters: "What ever happened to this country?" This question emerged in response to his character's observation of America as a formerly tolerant country that had in contemporary times drowned in its prejudices and resistance to diversity. (1) While most people remember the 1960s as a time when diversity flourished -- from the peak of the Civil Rights movement, the rise of feminism, gay rights, and sexual freedom to the primordial roar of rock music and soul ballads -- the film's creators rightly saw and depicted social resistance to these movements within that time. Those individuals who identified with the counterculture were ostracized as drug-addicted, sexual hedonists; black churches and Freedom Ride buses were bombed, and antiwar protesters were beaten by police at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago.

Not much has changed in terms of this intolerance, except that socially- and politically-conservative political leaders now believe that comparing the current president to Adolph Hitler and throwing procedural wrenches into the gears of the most basic operations of government will achieve their objectives. Liberals for their part have contributed to this environment in their own way; for in their continuing attempts to show that they are hawkish enough to lead the country through the thicket of terrorism and anti-Americanism in the world, they have either passed or strengthened laws such as the Patriot Act that have limited free speech and due process in order to squash political dissent and the diversity of expression, or they have actively encouraged the development and use of technologies that accomplish this. If particular technologies can be identified with a presidency and his management of war, then we can plausibly view warrantless wiretaps, electronic eavesdropping, and drones as the favored toys the Obama administration uses as it continues to indefinitely wage its holy war on terrorism, much like the telegraph and railroad were essential war tools of the Lincoln administration used to contain the Confederate insurrection of the American Civil War.

Notwithstanding the current political and economic crises spawned from a government that fellates its corporate benefactors with tax breaks and other special favors, we are seeing this same ideological war of intolerance playing out in higher education. The purpose of higher education has been in question for some time now and has reached a crescendo within these troubled economic times. I have seen this firsthand as a college teacher and have been scarred by it. The current job market, one in which the president takes "credit" for the creation of mostly low wage, temporary, jobs without benefits, is terrible, and college students by the millions are graduating into it with debts incurred from paying for their education. Political conservatives, long an enemy of academia and a liberal education, have smugly worn a "See? I told you so!" smile toward students from the liberal arts, an attitude that condemns the liberal arts disciplines for indoctrinating college students with liberal values and not job skills. Therefore, the high degree of unemployment or low employment among students who have graduated in these disciplines justifies the fact that they have made wrong decisions about choosing their field of study. The claims of such conservatives are then further amplified by technophillic charlatans such as Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg who have registered similar complaints. Gates and Zuckerberg have been careful to mute the issues they have with a values-based education in favor of a description of the pitfalls of education that identifies a "skills gap." (2) Gates and Zuckerberg represent exemplary figures for conservatives as innovators and job creators who have obtained great wealth not by completing a college degree or by indulging in a liberal arts education; hence, this is why conservatives are comfortable in defunding the liberal arts in higher education. Or they have shifted funding into the technological and science fields, which can be somewhat overkill since science and tech disciplines in academia in many cases already receive research and development funding from corporations.

The reaction to this from the liberal arts has been twofold. On the one hand, the negative reaction has seen proponents of the liberal arts defend the purity of their profession: that the exploration of historical knowledge, philosophical knowledge, or values knowledge is "good in itself" or "good for its own sake." Naturally and predictably, the negative reaction abhors the university's attempts to minimize or phase out a liberal arts education in favor of a technological or scientific education.

On the other hand, some proponents of a liberal arts education exhibit what I call an accomodationist reaction to these criticisms of the liberal arts. Such proponents seek to incorporate science and technology within the traditional humanistic disciplines. It is no mistake then that we have seen the emergence of new disciplines recently which accomplish this interdisciplinary approach: from the "digital humanities," the "history and/or philosophy or science," the "history and/or philosophy of technology," the "philosophy of artificial intelligence," the "history of medicine," "religion and science," or the "digital English" ("language and digital culture" or "language and digital technology"). These disciplines all purport to bridge the gap between the humanistic disciplines and the scientific and/or technological disciplines (i.e., STEM disciplines: science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) without bothering to explore the most important question: why is science and technology (or the STEM disciplines) any better off by studying them in relation to the humanistic, literary subjects? Part of the accomodationist approach stems (no pun intended) from the still prevailing relativist view permeating the humanistic literary disciplines that regard scientific literature on the same terms as subjective literature (fiction) and that science, as a process, ought to be regarded as an endeavor fraught with cultural and ideological bias. Unfortunately, academics who see science in this way persistently fail to ignore that their own characterization of science in these terms is perhaps fraught with bias by their own deep-seated contempt of the scientific enterprise.

Neither of these reactions to conservative criticisms of a liberal arts education seems adequate. The negative reaction does not seem to answer the question as to why the study of values is useful. A man or woman who studies various ethical theories and becomes an expert in the knowledge of these theories may well be in the dark in determining what is ethical. I look at the recent example of Professor Colin McGinn, the esteemed University of Miami philosopher who resigned in disgrace because of substantiated allegations of sexual misconduct with one of his graduate students. So there must be more to values than just the abstract, academic analysis of them.

We also certainly cannot continue to repeat the time-worn, party-line adage of the values-based disciplines: that a liberal arts education "fosters critical thinking skills." The humanistic, literary disciplines are certainly not the exclusive domain of critical thinking: the sciences too encourage and employ critical thinking skills. The accomodationist reaction waters down liberal arts disciplines by not even defending their usefulness in the first place and instead either seeks to take on an air of scientific gravitas by making science and technology a subject of exclusive analysis: sometimes the goal of which is to delegitimize the importance of science in the name of deconstructive propaganda.

So where do we go from here? How is a college or university education to be improved, so that students can leap into financially rewarding work after they graduate? I do not claim to have the answer but I do believe we need to look at other factors contributing to this crisis. Consider the following factors. We have transitioned into a global economy where capital can be easily shifted elsewhere (from the United States to tax havens in the Cayman Islands or elsewhere) and not invested in our economy. No investment in our economy means fewer jobs for our economy. Because money can be made in this way (and made almost instantly), businesses and corporations have no need to invest in American workers to boost profit margins. Also, since the wealthy and corporations are investing in foreign labor to skirt our labor laws and minimum wage, this further adds to the paucity of jobs for Americans. I find it ironic that businesses encouraged political leaders in Washington to end the government shutdown and reach a debt deal despite the fact that businesses have been using the prospect of economic fallout as a reason for not hiring new workers. (3) So perhaps joblessness has nothing at all to do with a "skills gap" but rather the fear of another recession, whether a real or contrived fear, that justifies current hiring trends. This flies in the face of free-market enthusiasts, intolerants themselves, who seek to impose a view of capitalism as a well-oiled Newtonian machine governed only by the immutable laws of supply and demand. The free market intolerants try to identify the jobs problem as a supply and demand problem when it is really an issue of the underlying psychology of the market. Emotions can drive markets too; especially emotions that might not even have any basis in reason. What does that mean? Well, it means that contrary to the belief that the market functions rationally, it nonetheless also operates under fundamentally irrational principles or prejudices. Age, for example, is one issue related to hiring and from what I have heard, some employers are not even considering the applications of individuals who have been out of college for more than two years. Apparently, a twenty-three-year-old is less trainable than a twenty-one-year-old (God forbid if you graduated in 2013 but went back to school to complete your baccalaureate studies in your forties or fifties) but this is a reaction based entirely upon the fear that the most experienced prospective worker will leave the job at the first opportunity or demand top salary. But markets based upon fear are not rational markets so we can't continue to be transfixed by the idea that markets are rational.

Part of the jobs problem (and the market problem) is that decisions by businesses are not made rationally or as autonomously as we once thought. And perhaps a generation of workers may pay for that dearly.


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About the Author

Harvey E. Whitney, Jr. is a doctoral candidate in history at Florida State University and teaches medieval and modern global history at Howard Community College in Maryland. To learn more, please visit his Web site at http://hewhitney.com/.   (back)


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1.  Of course, Nicholson's character, a lawyer, might have had romantic visions of America's history which obviously did not jive with its overt history of racial intolerance, nativism, and gender discrimination which was an integral part of society during and before the 1960s.  (back)

2.  Zuckerberg has had his dalliances with the Republican Party recently in hosting a fundraiser for Republican governor of New Jersey Chris Christie.  (back)

3.  http://www.epi.org/publication/regulatory-uncertainty-phony-explanation/  (back)


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Published November 4, 2013