Liberal Arts and Sciences

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average worker currently holds ten different jobs before age forty, and this number is projected to grow. Other sources range from twelve to fifteen jobs over the life course and five to seven careers in a lifetime. It is therefore a great disservice to train a young person for a particular vocation. Not only will that vocation likely not be the job they will wind up with, but, for some, the job they’re training for now may not even be there by the time they graduate. 

It is a moral imperative for public universities to require the breath of knowledge that general education provides and the depth and complexity of thinking that comes with a problem-focused and domain-based education. Rich people send their kids to universities with these characteristics because they know this is the type of education that suits a free and self-actualizing person. Why would any of us who believe in these values want anything less for the kids of working families? Why would any educated and aware person fail to see that the purpose (or function, if you like) of undermining the liberal arts component of the public university is to reproduce the class structure that guarantees wealth and privilege for the few families who run the economy? 

The business class does not care about enhancing the value of our youth for the sake of enlightened and engaged citizenship. From their standpoint, such values are dangerously socialized in a population meant from their standpoint to serve industry. The business class cares about enhancing the value they extract through the labor process – and then chucking the worker when her job has been automated or off-shored. Vocationalizing public higher education is a scheme to externalize the cost of job training by making the individual pay for it himself and for his children, often by accumulating suffocating levels of debt. 

The public university must be more than an organ that serves the narrow class interests of economic elites. It should serve the cause of enlightenment and social progress. It should teach people not merely to adapt to changing circumstances, but to change the circumstances to fit their needs and desires. It’s the role of the professoriate to defend these values by fighting for the liberal arts and social sciences.

Published by

Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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