What’s an ed­u­ca­tion for?

Eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment, says the Univer­sity of Arkansas

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - EDITORIAL PAGE - Paul Green­berg Paul Green­berg is the Pulitzer Prize-win­ning ed­i­to­rial writer and colum­nist for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

Lit­tle boxes on the hill­side

Lit­tle boxes made of ticky-tacky Lit­tle boxes on the hill­side

Lit­tle boxes all the same

There’s a pink one and a green one And a blue one and a yel­low one And they’re all made out of ticky-tacky And they all look just the same And the peo­ple in the houses

All went to the univer­sity

Where they were put in boxes

And they came out all the same And there’s doc­tors and lawyers And busi­ness ex­ec­u­tives

And they’re all made out of ticky-tacky And they all look just the same

—Malv­ina Reynolds, “Lit­tle Boxes”

Now we know the an­swer to an age-old ques­tion that has puz­zled philoso­phers since Socrates’ time. Poor fel­low, he couldn’t have an­tic­i­pated our ad­vanced era or he might have avoided get­ting into trou­ble and meet­ing his end at the or­der of the po­lit­i­cal au­thor­i­ties of an­cient Athens, who pre­scribed a cup of hem­lock for the old rab­ble-rouser, who had noth­ing to do but wan­der through the Agora pos­ing lead­ing ques­tions to the im­pres­sion­able young.

The un­ex­am­ined life, he as­serted, wasn’t worth liv­ing so he pro­ceeded to over-ex­am­ine it, not know­ing that mil­len­nia hence the mas­ter­minds at the Univer­sity of Arkansas would re­veal the se­cret of the good life: ac­cu­mu­lat­ing the most stuff be­fore the Grim Reaper comes along to an­nounce clos­ing time.

Michael Moore, vice pres­i­dent for aca­demic af­fairs for the Univer­sity of Arkansas sys­tem, now has ex­plained what this de­bate be­tween the wis­dom of the ages and our own is all about: “It’s an eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment is­sue. Peo­ple with col­lege de­grees at­tract bet­ter em­ploy­ers to the state be­cause they [the em­ploy­ers] want a more ed­u­cated work­force. Peo­ple with col­lege de­grees that have bet­ter jobs earn higher wages, which means they buy bet­ter homes and bet­ter cars and they spend more at the gro­cery store and they take more va­ca­tions and they buy the lake house.”

It’s all quite sim­ple when you think about it, and maybe even sim­pler when you don’t. Be­cause this the­ory pro­pounded by the Michael Moores of the world and all the other true be­liev­ers in eco­nomic de­ter­min­ism have de­vel­oped quite a fol­low­ing over the years. To sum it up, money talks, and the folks with the most money talk loud­est. Ergo, all you out there ought to join this ma­te­ri­al­ist move­ment be­fore you’re left be­hind. So hurry up, hop on the band­wagon, and go back to col­lege if you’ve ever dropped out. And tell oth­ers to join you. And in­deed it does make sense for the dropouts to go back to col­lege, but maybe not for the sim­ple, in­deed sim­plis­tic, rea­sons that Michael Moore gives.

“This is an in­vest­ment that makes sense for the state to be part of,” says Dr. Moore (doc­tor­ate, po­lit­i­cal sci­ence), and “I don’t mean just the state govern­ment.” For he has larger am­bi­tions for us all. “I mean ev­ery­body in the state.” Just imag­ine what an exalted po­si­tion on the fac­ulty of a state univer­sity Socrates might have qual­i­fied for if only he’d fol­lowed Michael Moore’s ster­ling ex­am­ple. But some­thing tells us the old Greek wouldn’t have been in­ter­ested, hav­ing other mat­ters to pon­der — like the mean­ing of life.

The pres­i­dent of the UA sys­tem, Don­ald Bob­bitt, says he is proud of the “fan­tas­tic job” Arkansas’ two- and four-year col­leges are do­ing for the state’s younger un­der­grad­u­ates, those be­tween 18 and 22 years of age — and he should be. But he ac­knowl­edges the state is not do­ing as well by its older stu­dents on cam­pus. They may have gone to their classes, paid their tu­ition and var­i­ous fees, but ac­quired a lot of debt in the process with­out ob­tain­ing a de­gree that would be mar­ketable. And isn’t that what a col­lege de­gree is for? The suck­ers who sim­ply love learn­ing for its own sake and pur­sue it in the be­lief that ed­u­ca­tion is its own rea­son for be­ing and the be­gin­ning of a life-long ad­ven­ture may have some­thing no amount of money can buy: faith in ed­u­ca­tion as some­thing more than a meal ticket.

This state’s gov­er­nor and ed­u­ca­tor-in-chief, The Hon. Asa Hutchin­son, shares his view, says Dr. Bob­bitt, who clearly earned his un­der­grad­u­ate de­gree in some­thing other than phi­los­o­phy, namely chem­istry. Dr. Bob­bitt says the gov­er­nor un­der­stands that “in or­der for us to con­tinue to at­tract the kind of cor­po­rate en­ter­prises we want, to pro­vide the jobs, the qual­ity of life, the cul­tural ameni­ties it takes to keep Arkansas as a very de­sir­able places to live, we have got to have an ed­u­cated work­force. It’s one of the first boxes that get checked when a com­pany is look­ing.”

In short, ask not what you can do for your state, but what it can do for you. The goal is to pro­duce an ed­u­cated work­force, what­ever that means, and it’s “one of the first boxes that gets checked when a com­pany is look­ing” for a place to lo­cate. And isn’t that what the whole ed­u­ca­tional process should be about? For it’s just a mat­ter of check­ing all the right boxes, isn’t it? And then fit­ting the ed­u­ca­tional prod­uct into those con­tain­ers, the way one would turn out any other prod­uct for the mar­ket. Fill in your or­der blank and Arkansas will de­liver what busi­nesses need. Like any other prod­uct rolling off the as­sem­bly line. All that re­mains to be done is to change Dr. Moore’s ti­tle from vice pres­i­dent for aca­demic af­fairs to vice pres­i­dent for eco­nomic ones.

There may not be much call for poets and artists and mu­si­cians and all their ilk in the help wanted ads, or even for those of us who pro­vide them with an au­di­ence, but it’s all a mat­ter of sup­ply and de­mand. And the sup­ply of thinkers these days seems to far exceed the de­mand, which means the pay will be low. Un­like the com­pen­sa­tion of­fered in trades that at­tract busi­nesses to Arkansas. There­fore what’s nec­es­sary is to beef up this state’s of­fer­ings in skills like op­er­at­ing heavy ma­chin­ery, han­dling com­put­er­ized records and such.

We here in Arkansas should aim to please prospec­tive em­ploy­ers. And that’s what ed­u­ca­tion is for. Any ques­tions? If so, keep them to your­self, for if there’s any­thing such a sys­tem dis­cour­ages, it’s dis­sent. As old Socrates dis­cov­ered in his time.

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