A notable excerpt from a recent interview with Bryan Caplan, an economist at George Mason, about his new book The Case Against Education over at The Chronicle of Higher Education:
[Education] needs to be either useful or enjoyable. And for most students, these subjects are neither, unfortunately. There is an enormous gap between the education that people receive and what they actually use in most of the jobs they have. I mean, there may be some small amount that they’re able to glean from it. But most of the stuff, right after the final exam, they’ll never need to know again. And if these are required classes that the student was not interested in, and they just took those classes to get the diploma, then that seems wasteful from almost any point of view.
Reading against the backdrop of my own (granted, idealistic and humane) view of university education, I find this passage to be a pretty cynical take on undergraduate learning—one driven by mere preparation for a particular job, characterized by acquisition of a fleeting collection of facts and not by cultivation of assiduous, liberal habits. The interview even veers into callous psychologizing: “Most kids are philistines—they are that way deep in their souls.” Yikes.
I could lay out my own arguments against weaponizing student boredom for the elimination of arts and humanities requirements, but in lieu of my own prose, I’ll simply turn to the closing paragraphs of Flannery O’Connor’s “Total Effect and the Eighth Grade,” an essay published in Mystery and Manners:
The high-school English teacher will be fulfilling his responsibility if he furnishes the student a guided opportunity, through the best writing of the past, to come, in time, to an understanding of the best writing of the present. He will teach literature, not social studies or little lessons in democracy or the customs of many lands. And if the student finds that this is not to his taste? Well, that is regrettable. Most regrettable. His taste should not be consulted; it is being formed.
I won’t deny that there are real problems in higher education, including required classes that “students typically … come to view as impositions to “get out of the way”” and “the failure of leaders in higher education to champion the liberal-arts ideal — that college should challenge, develop, and transform students’ minds and hearts so they can lead good, flourishing, and socially productive lives — and their stampeding into the “practical” enterprise of producing specialized workers to feed The Economy.” The impulse to calibrate a curriculum around what students “actually use in most of the jobs they have” seems misguided, as does a case against education grounded in eighteen-year-old antipathies. Our task isn’t to consult these antipathies; it’s to reform them.