Colleges Train for Work, Not Thought

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Professor Larry Wilkerson discusses the latest in the high cost of college and the increasing role universities play in prepping a work force rather than an intellectual force

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JARED BALL, PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome, everyone, back to the Real News Network. I’m Jared Ball here in Baltimore.

While leading Democratic party politicians are now hawking new plans for a debt-free college experience, which of course sounds great to what are now the most indebted college graduates in world history, there are still some concerned about the kind of education even those not having to pay at all would receive. In a recent article for Harper’s magazine William Deresiewicz describes a situation where, as he says, colleges have sold their soul to the market.

To discuss this is Larry Wilkerson, former chief of staff to Colin Powell and a professor at the College of William and Mary. We welcome back Col. Wilkerson to the Real News. Welcome back.

LARRY WILKERSON, FMR. CHIEF OF STAFF TO COLIN POWELL: Thanks, Jared. Good to be with you.

BALL: So tell us what you think about this article. It suggests that neoliberalism has taken hold, and the designs of the corporate world are all that most universities are being encouraged, at least, to be concerned about. What do you see is the problem here with this trend?

WILKERSON: This is an age-old problem, as you probably know. It goes way back in the life of universities, certainly argued majorly in or on campuses like Oxford University, Cambridge University in England, and other, older schools. It is typified by on the one side the humanists, the exponents of liberal arts, of teaching young men and young women how to think critically as opposed to skills enhancement and training, and those on the other side of the argument exemplified at that time by the Huxley brothers, scientists, by those who reflect what we’re talking about today when we say STEM, science, technology, engineering and so forth.

And what is increasingly becoming the case, and I think is the real object of the article in Harper’s and others who are talking about this in great detail today, and that is the predatory capitalist state, which is what we have become in addition to being a national security state. That predatory capitalist state wants, one, workers who are not going to question things. That is to say, they can’t think critically. And it wants people who are more or less inured to what they produce, do, and mean in daily existence. That is to say, they want workers who are compliant with the structure that we’ve created in this country, the structure that works for minimum wages, that does things that need to be done for the corporate good, and so forth.

It’s a meaner argument, if you will, today. I can give the Huxley brothers their due, as they argued for example with John Henry Cardinal Newman about whether a liberal arts education or a science-based education was the best. And like Plato and Aristotle I would probably argue that somewhere in between is probably the best kind of education. That is to say, you need scientists who can think critically too, and therefore be good voters and so forth, and you need humanists that know something, liberal arts people who know something about science, engineering, math, and so forth. That’s the ideal world.

What you do not need is colleges and universities that are focused on getting jobs for people, and getting jobs in a society that is increasingly plutocratic, that is to say, the only people with the really good jobs are at the very top, and everybody else is a worker bee for those people. That’s what these colleges and universities are tending towards now, and that’s what the advertisements, that’s what the brouhaha in U.S. news and [inaud.] report and other places like that is all about. Oh, you’re spending $200,000 for Jane’s education. Then Jane needs to get a job, and she doesn’t need an education. What she needs is training and skills enhancement. Well, that’s not the purpose of a university.

BALL: But this sounds like, to me at least, that this is an expansion, as you said, of a much longer existing problem. That is, that for many, that is for working whites, for poor working whites in this country and certainly for African-descended people and indigenous people, there has long been a history of teaching those communities only to be part of the workforce. That is, with Native American residential schools, with the industrial schools of the 19th century for African-Americans, for the establishment of a public school system in this country in general that was designed specifically to prepare white working people for their roles in society, that this has long been an issue.

So how is this discussion, other than upping it, so to speak, into the upper echelons of society, how is this a change in terms of the history of this country’s education, generally speaking?

WILKERSON: It’s not a change in the sense that you just expressed it, that it has all this complexity, all this nuance and all these different parts to it. For example, there is the part of minority education, the part of minorities being shorted for 400 years, still being shorted. I worked in the DC public school system, for example, for Colin Powell for ten years. It is for all intents and purposes I was segregated when I worked in it as it was in 1850, if it existed at that time. I mean this is no, nothing news to people who’ve worked in inner city schools, that minorities get short shrift when it comes to education.

But this is a bigger argument. It’s a huge argument at the very top of what you might call the sophistication of education argument. And it is first of all, should everyone get a university education, well, I for one, I’m talking about. The answer to that question is no. no matter how egalitarian you may be, everyone in the world does not need to be a philosopher, does not need to be a Ph.D in nuclear physics, and so forth. They don’t have the intellectual capacity, and frankly–and this is more important–they don’t have the inclination.

There are plenty of people that ought to run automotive repair shops, ought to be tradesmen and craftsmen and so forth. And we’ve sort of lost that in this culture today because what we are is a finance giant. We service people, we finance things. We don’t do any real making of anything anymore. But there is a niche, a huge niche in our society for artisans. For craftsmen. For people who by their own wishes don’t want what I’m talking about when I say a university education. And in many cases, aren’t intellectually equipped for it.

So that’s the first division you have to make, and you do have to make that division. We’ve been very [inaud.] by allowing the market to make that division, which is why we get so many idiots who are billionaires, and so many bright people who are not making any money at all. It’s a hypocritical stance in this country that we take on merit and education, and so forth.

But back to the argument, the university takes in people who are intellectually, mentally predisposed to and want to be critical thinkers. That’s not everybody in society. I daresay if a study were done, and it were done over time, you’d probably find 30-40 percent of any given society that really ought to have a university education of the type I’m talking about. Other types of education that mostly community colleges can offer, that are in fact sort of a combination of what I mean by education and what I mean by skills enhancement that are aimed at particular niches in society for example, computer training being the latest example of that on a broad base, ought to be done also. But this is a sort of combination of the university and the artisan segments of society.

The Germans do this really well. They have trade schools and they have universities. And they know everyone’s not going to university, by inclination or by capability. So they identify those people and send those people to university. Those who want trades and good jobs in trades, like working at Mercedes or BMW or whatever, they then send to trade school. Because they want to go to trade school, and because they have intellectual and other capacity to do that. This is the way education should be divided in this country. But hypocrites that we are, hypocrites that we’ve always been, we say everyone should have a $250,000 or more university education. That’s pure poppycock.

BALL: Larry Wilkerson, thanks again for joining us here at the Real News.

WILKERSON: Thanks for having me on, Jared.

BALL: And thank you for joining us here at the Real News. For everyone involved, again, I’m Jared Ball here in Baltimore. And as always, as Fred Hampton used to say, to you we say peace if you’re willing to fight for it. So peace everybody, and we’ll catch you in the whirlwind.

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