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In My Words: Beware the education-industrial complex

Professor Tom Arcaro writes in regional newspapers that public policy debates over higher education miss a critical question.

The following column was recently published in the Richmond Times-Dispatch, the Fayetteville Observer, the (Greenville, N.C.) Daily Reflector, the (Myrtle Beach, S.C.) Sun News, the (Burlington, N.C.) Times-News, the Winston-Salem Journal and the Roanoke (Va.) Times via the Elon University Writers Syndicate.

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Professor Tom Arcaro: "Institutions of education 'create the public' more than just teach it."

In My Words: Beware the education-industrial complex
By Tom Arcaro - arcaro@elon.edu

 

"Every government degenerates when trusted to the rulers of the people alone. The people themselves, therefore, are its only safe depositories. And to render them safe, their minds must be improved to a certain degree." - Thomas Jefferson, 1782, Notes on the State of Virginia

As an educator – and more importantly, as an American citizen - like Jefferson, I believe that improving the minds of people is a critical function of our nation’s educational system.

Jefferson encouraged state leaders of our new republic to ensure a free education for all citizens. He and many notable thinkers since then have argued that critically trained minds are essential for a working democracy. But that isn’t an answer we give today when we talk about the role of education.

Writers from John Dewey to Neil Postman have observed that our schools and colleges, rather than sharpen the intellectual might of our youngest citizens, have morphed into a training ground for the economic system. Call it the “minor leagues” for business and industry.

“What kind of job can I get with this major?” is a question treated with respect and reverence in higher education, not “how can I function better as a citizen with this degree?” That, I suggest, is what Jefferson had in mind. Upon looking at our 21st century globalized world, he might even suggest asking, “How can I function better as a global citizen with this degree?”

In frequent debates on both the state and national stage, politicians focus their rhetoric on higher education’s role in job creation. Academics perceive those comments as attacks on the liberal arts. Rarely does the conversation put at its center the original mission of the academy.

How and why did the fundamental mission of the educational system get hijacked?

In 1961, in his farewell speech to the nation, President Dwight Eisenhower contributed an ominous phrase to the American lexicon: military-industrial complex. In Eisenhower’s words, this complex is a “conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry” whose “total influence - economic, political, even spiritual” is felt all over the United States.

In roughly the same time since Eisenhower’s speech there has been an emerging and more insidious social force, one I would label an “education-industrial complex.” Just as with the military-industrial complex, the education-industrial complex is a win-win for business and education: One gets the cogs for the machine and the other gets tuition fees, not to mention fat research grants from the military, pharmaceutical companies, engineering firms and more.

The blind algorithm of capitalism, extolled in its virtues by neoliberals both domestic and international, creates the kinds of systems that will keep it moving forward. Dwight Eisenhower understood that the military-industrial complex was a natural outgrowth of a maturing capitalism, and the same phenomena have occurred to produce the education-industrial complex.

Are these two ends of higher education – to serve democracy or serve the economic system – mutually exclusive? No, not literally, but I have never in my three decades teaching in higher education had a parent ask how majoring in sociology will make his daughter a better global citizen.

Institutions of education “create the public” more than just teach it. From my training and experience as a sociologist I would point out that the arts, including music, poetry and painting, are far from superfluous. They are essential to a more complete understanding of ourselves and of our world.

Our nation’s underpinnings assume that citizens will grasp the responsibility of being safe depositories. We must never accept the notion that an education is merely job training.  Think critically about the forces that affect your life, and embrace the responsibilities of stewarding a nation or, indeed, a planet.

It is pure hubris to argue that you can be a complete citizen without basic liberal arts training, formal or otherwise. No, I’ll take that back. You can be a citizen, of course, but you would not be the kind that Jefferson believed we needed.

Tom Arcaro is a professor of sociology at Elon University.

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Elon University faculty with an interest in sharing their expertise with wider audiences are encouraged to contact Eric Townsend (etownsend4@elon.edu) in the Office of University Communications should they like assistance with prospective newspaper op/ed submissions.

Viewpoints shared by this syndicate are those of the author and not of Elon University.

Eric Townsend,
Staff
4/6/2013 11:25 PM