Editorial: College also is exploring soul, not just job skills

Jun. 05, 2013 @ 02:55 PM

Who do our state’s colleges and universities exist to serve? The popular short answer is their customers.

But who are their customers? Students? Parents? Potential employers? College professors and other instructors certainly can tell you that students and their parents think they are the customers, demanding a high level of service and constant access.

But their view is at odds with the one that put Gov. Pat McCrory in headlines back in February, when in a radio interview he criticized liberal arts courses that he perceived as having no benefit in terms of getting a job. He said he would propose legislation to change higher education funding “not based on how many butts (are) in seats but how many of those butts can get jobs.”

That view implies that the ultimate customers of our higher education system are employers, that the education system exists primarily to fuel the economy, and that publicly funded colleges should get taxpayer money only to the extent that their graduates get jobs.

But interestingly, employers don’t pay the bills, students and their parents do. In other words, the ones who through both taxes and tuition pay the bulk of the institutions’ costs. Don’t they have any say? If little Johnny wants to double-major in art history and Latin or philosophy, should the state have the right to say, “Sorry, no, we don’t see a future in that. Why not go pre-med?”

Consider this contrast: Conservative columnist David Brooks wrote in a column this week about a young man featured in the Washington Post who plans to go work for a Wall Street hedge fund but live a spartan life so he can donate most of his income to world charities. Brooks thinks this is a horrible idea – not because he opposes donating all you can to charity but because he says that doing one thing, make a lot of money in an avaricious environment, that is greatly at odds with your own inherent interests and desires is destructive to your soul: “Taking a job just to make money … is probably going to be corrosive, even if you use the money for charity rather than sports cars.”

He refers to the process of “making yourself,” discovering your interests and talents and growing as a person. These are the kinds of things that some people say begin in school, and that colleges are where they are refined to help young adults learn what it is they really want to do, not just what their parents or friends or neighbors at home always said they should do.

“I’d think you would be more likely to cultivate a deep soul if you put yourself in the middle of the things that engaged you most seriously,” Brooks writes. “If your profoundest interest is dying children in Africa or Bangladesh, it’s probably best to go to Africa or Bangladesh, not to Wall Street.”

“A deep soul”? What businesses hire those?

But funny enough, if your profoundest interest is high-paying jobs, there are schools in every major college in the land to help you work toward that goal. To the extent those have customers (students) willing to pay for it, they will continue to flourish. It’s only if your interest is the cultivation of knowledge, or of art, or just of yourself that people like McCrory say public universities should not be the place for you.

In the end our value, as individuals and as members of society, is not determined solely by the balance in our bank account. That’s something some of us apparently still haven’t learned.