Today in collegiate dystopia: “workforce needs”

May 31, 2019 • 2:30 pm

by Greg Mayer

There’s a lot wrong with higher education in the United States (and perhaps the world), but I know of few, if any, public figures who are pointing out the problems and discussing potential solutions. The problem is that all “sides” to the “debate”, whether right or left, agree on the central premises: they all embrace the neoliberal consensus that the goal of the educational system is maximization of lifetime earnings, and that educational attainment and quality can be measured most simply and clearly by dollars earned. The “debate”, such as it is, is about the split of those earnings between workers and business owners– some want more for the workers (the “left”), some want more for the owners (“the right”). (Even casting the debate in terms of class, as I have done here would be anathema to both sides.)

I was moved to begin what I hope to make an occasional series on this subject by yesterday’s front page in the local paper, the Kenosha News.

In the article, the leaders of all three local colleges– a technical college, a 4-year public, and a 4-year private– announce their fealty to the neoliberal dream: efficient production of workers for industry. Among the strategies that they believe will lead to “educational value” are “reducing credits” and “compressing classes”– I don’t even know what they intend these to mean.

My view of education is quite different. I accept the contention of Robert Hutchins in The University of Utopia that

The object of the educational system, taken as a whole, is not to produce hands for industry or to teach the young how to make a living. It is to produce responsible citizens.

And, institutions of higher education must be institutions, as James Smithson put it, “for the increase and diffusion of knowledge“. I would regard these principles as axiomatic, but it is all too clear that many, especially in educational leadership, do not.

Lord knows we need responsible citizenship, both among the general populace, and as much, if not more so, among our leaders. A cowering obeisance to mammon is not what we need.

54 thoughts on “Today in collegiate dystopia: “workforce needs”

  1. I agree completely. At my institution we are pressured to provide professional training in narrow fields, and to make it ever easier to earn a degree. The entire system is geared to the latter purpose, with large teams of hand-holding advisors, pressure to not fail students and to get good student evaluations above all else, and hanging over it all a state mandate to increase graduation rates.

    The net effect is ever decreasing quality of education, ironically making the degree less valuable with each passing year.

    1. And with those types of student outcomes I find working with those graduates is tedious sometimes. Sure, they know their stuff from a purely transactional perspective but they don’t have a wider skill set and knowledge. This effects their ability to solve problems and really I think it’s a detriment to society to churn out narrowly educated people who know little of history or science. Such people often see no value in the ecosystem, environment, etc. and there are dire consequences.

      1. Absolutely agreed. One only has to watch a TV quiz show to find out how startlingly ignorant many people are of geography, history, and classic science (I mention those topics because those three things haven’t changed much over the decades so a young person today should know as much about them as one of my generation).


  2. I’m just wondering how Joseph Campbell’s dictum to “Follow your bliss” comports with the “efficient production of workers for industry”. The world seems truly turned upside down.

    1. It fits if your bliss is to go to work at a job every day and make as much money as possible to spend on things other workers make. If you bliss involves wider satisfaction you’re pretty much screwed.

    2. I’ve never put much merit in the “follow your bliss” advice for life. Hell, I’d be smokin’, drinking, and taking hallucinogens every day if that were the case. Sarcasm alert there, but no society in the history of mankind afaik has actually lived/survived/flourished by that credo. It helps if (like Joseph Campbell) you had a lot of luck and smarts. Either way, following what one loves doesn’t usually translate into financial bliss. And that’s where I regard the “bliss” thing as bunk.

  3. I agree with Robert Hutchins [the guy who eliminated varsity football at UofC] of course, quote from OP:

    The object of the educational system, taken as a whole, is not to produce hands for industry or to teach the young how to make a living. It is to produce responsible citizens.

    although I would add to that that they be widely read & with a grasp of the rudiments of how to think & argue not just packed with rules & facts & general knowledge.

    I also liked this bit from the link:

    The Chicago College eliminated grades and course requirements, replacing these with broad-based general education classes and a series of comprehensive exams. Hutchins advocated the relocation of the BA degree to the sophomore year of college, focusing the bachelor’s degree on general or liberal education, and leaving specialization for the master’s.

    Young people arrive in higher education in most UK systems already too specialised & with their noses often firmly pointed at a specific career area. It’s been that to an extent since way before I were an egg, but even more so now higher ed isn’t free [except if you’re a student from Scotland or the EU. If that’s you, you won’t pay a bean towards tuition fees at Scottish universities – the Student Awards Agency for Scotland (SAAS) will cover the £1,820 a year for you].

    1. As a undergrad, I found it amusing how people would enter university with the lofty goal of “becoming a doctor, psychologist, etc”. Let’s get passed the first set of exams first, shall we?

  4. I am not in the education business so I may not provide anything you are looking for on this subject. I believe the drop out rate in high school is around 20% nation wide. The drop out rate before graduation from 4 years of college is much higher than that so we have millions of people who are not getting that great education in our standard, normal schools. So we do need something different, although I don’t think the experiment in Kenosha is the way to do it. We do need something different and more appropriate for the millions out there who do not go or do not make it in higher education.

    1. We need better education in high schools that make a graduate scientifically, historically, and culturally literate and also actually literate.

      1. I am sure you are right but we have to get them to graduation as well and right now, what do you do to the 20 percent or more in America who don’t make it to graduation? Some might be literate but without a diploma good luck.

  5. Jerry, I begin my undergraduate life in THE college in ’61, transferred to Ohio State as a third year student. OSU and UC were equally selective, UC before matriculation, OSU after. My third year classmates at OSU weren’t much, if any, less bright than my classmates at UC. But they had a different outlook.

    When I was a senior I played pardessus de viole in the collegium musicum, took a medieval French lit course (taught in French, exams in English) to fill a requirement and because the instructor (long story) was a drinking buddy.

    One day my French lit classmates slammed me up against the wall and demanded to know why I, a music major, was in their course and taking one of their As. I gave a very UC answer. “Wrong. I’m not a music major, I’m an econ major and I’m here for the same reason I play the instrument. For pleasure.” My poor classmates couldn’t answer.

    1. MacGyver has answered the same way, a way that many of us would likely agree with, but with our love instead of his:

      “I took physics because it was interesting and it excited me, not to buy myself a job.”

      In my case, philosophy and computing rather than physics.

  6. Hallelujah Greg. I too hold the idea that university education is to produce better citizens not workers. This is the big tug of war in higher ed now between the state, the people and the higher ed institutions. I am quite worried about it.

  7. I believe that the object of the educational system should be to create the most educated workforce, in order to have the strongest economy, which will allow the country to afford a military power second to none (remember that there are a lot of countries that would like to utterly destroy you, and remember too, that higher education is very expensive).

    To become nice and educated people we already have millions of free or inexpensive books and podcasts.

    1. I somewhat sympathize with your position. I took my share of liberal arts courses and as part and parcel of that improved my ability to write tolerable essays to demonstrate my larnin.’ Those here old enough to remember the Apollo moon landing can testify to the ordeal of writing by hand or typewriter in the pre-computer cut & paste days of yore.

      I chafed at having to so write. I think the experience sours not a few on reading humanities tomes for pleasure beyond their time in the halls of ivy. If I had it to do over I would instead strive to read Machiavelli, Luther, Erasmus (and a host of others featured in Hutchins’s and Adler’s “Great Books of the Western World,” or “Harvard Classics,” or even the Loeb Classical Library) on my own time and for pleasure.

      The Masters of Mankind complain about their employees insufficient writing/communication skills, and I grant the need for acquiring and honing those skills. Yet, I find it a little off-putting for Wall Street Romneyesque CEO/investor class types (English or PolySci or Finance majors, MBA and/or JD graduates) to lecture workers (whom they view as human “capital” and “resources” and, truth be known, servants) and press them to go into STEM fields when these Masters themselves decline to do so. These “Carried Interest” types would rather “make” than “earn” money.

      1. And I so agree about the ‘masters’ in middle management who have little knowledge or aptitude for anything except creating spreadsheets and climbing the corporate ladder.

        Management by bean counting, with a 5-year horizon. Whatever is (projected to be) cheapest in the short term gets approved.


        1. When I taught high school and junior college Math I was disappointed at how many of my strongest students wanted to go into business rather science or engineering.

          1. Yet ‘business’ involves very little maths beyond simple multiplication and division. Huge quantities of those, of course, in any spreadsheet, and the biggest challenge is just keeping track of which shoals of numbers go where.

            Maybe a little logarithms and statistics as well, but that’s about it, so far as I can tell.

            I hasten to concede that good management and success in business requires a wide array of other skills – just not mathematical ones.


          2. Some stats mostly for business but I think it’s one of the dullest things to study and often people doing so are lacking in cultural and scientific literacy. I’d rather teach then the culture and science and the business stuff builds on that.

          3. EXactly! If you want to go into business do it with something you have a passion for, not just to make money.

          4. @Merilee
            I remember from my copy of Up The Organisation (the only business book I have ever owned or read 🙂 I recall Townsend saying that any time he came up with something with the sole idea of making money, it was a flop; any time he came up with an idea that was worth doing for its own sake, it usually succeeded.


          5. I’m reminded of several times reading reporters’ comparisons of education majors’ GPA’s with those of STEM majors. A comparison with business (and journalism) majors’ GPA’s is never made.

    2. “which will allow the country to afford a military power second to none”

      – which is currently commanded by a moron with no conscience and a 5-minute attention span. Is it any wonder a lot of countries “would like to utterly destroy you”?

      The Orange Shitgibbon has just ordered an aircraft carrier fleet to stooge around off Iran. Why is anyone surprised that Iran would like nuclear weapons? If persuading Iran they don’t need / shouldn’t have nukes is the objective, tRump just kneecapped that argument.

      If countries were people the USA would currently be in a secure facility for psychiatric patients with a diagnosis of schizophrenia, and kept well away from sharp objects.


      1. Well, that’s my fault: I believe we all should aspire to the ideals of those claims. But I also believe that the goal of the education system should be, ultimately, to have a military force capable of defending the country. Happily, having the best scientists, coders, and financial people, is the more efficient way to achieve military power, and to get richer and knowledgeable.
        Now, to become better and more refined people, we have free books, podcasts, music, you can follow the best people on Twitter, and read blogs like this one.
        I think that people sometimes forget that there are many countries, and a lot of crazy people in the world.

        1. It’s like Athens 25 centuries ago. Do you want great philosophers, like Socrates? Well, first you need great hoplites, like Socrates.

      2. GCM, after I posted my reply, I was staring to wonder if the original comment was a Poe, too.

        But then ‘FB’ posted again…


    3. Assuming FB is not pulling our legs (good on him/her if he/she is!), his/her “…THE educational system…”, eh??

      His/her stated aim might be rather difficult to achieve for THE educational system of the country, say, Lichtenstein, whose population amounts to something like 39,000, approximately 1/2000th of 1% of the world population, wouldn’t it?

      As a non-USian, and with tongue only partially in my cheek, I’d suggest that one of many suitable aims for the US educational system (I doubt FB was referring to the Khazakstani educational system, since Borat has portrayed such a refined cosmopolitan stable genius) might be to bring a few shit-for-brains Trump voters along to the point where they become aware of the existence and aspirations of people who actually live elsewhere than in that land which makes up about 23% of the landmass of America, i.e. of North and South America.

  8. The University of Utopia

    After starting off with a hilariously incorrect prediction, it turned into a nice compendium of economic fallacies.

    “But this [Keynesian] utopia[sic], which is almost within our grasp[sic], requires changes of the most profound order-in our outlook on life, in our slogans, in our most cherished beliefs, … ”

    IOW, all we need for this “Keynesian utopia” is the is the New Soviet Man.

  9. I would regard these principles as axiomatic, but it is all too clear that many, especially in educational leadership, do not.

    The actual “problem” is the consumers of education – they want to have a decent income, at least, after they graduate.

    They don’t want to spend a lot of money and time in college on subjects which make more sense as a hobby, like medieval history or political “science”.

  10. There’s a place for deliberate education for gainful / practical employment : vocational/technical school.

    As a side remark, I liked Tom Nichols’ lament that education is becoming vocational technical schools on the one end and expensive coffee houses on the other.

  11. Our Commencement speaker in 1980 said “Congratulations, you can now consider yourselves educable. Not educat-ED, educable. You have learned how to learn.”

    I never forgot that.

    Also, I have never stopped learning new things.

    On the other hand, a year later I was on food stamps and welfare, so I decided to go to grad school for a professional degree…

  12. I don’t feel this is an either/or situation. We have plenty of educated people making hardly any money and some making great money, we have uneducated people making a good living and some other eating out of dumpsters, and we have complete idiots running the country. We need people to be educated enough to do their jobs/careers, we need them educated enough to make intelligent choices in their daily lives and in choosing their governments, we need people who are happy and fulfilled, whatever that might mean for them, and we need people who can raise heathy, well-adjusted children for the next generation. Therefor I would argue that schools need to educate for the workplace, for our country and communities, and for their own inner needs. I am fairly well educated. I have an A.A. in history and philosophy, a B.S. in history and anthropology, I’m two courses short of an M.A. in education theory, and have additional education in bachelors level biology (hope to return to it some day) and yet I struggle to make enough to pay my mortgage on an 860 extravagantly. ft. house, pay my bills, car payment, and eat. I do not live extravagantly, I struggle daily. So while without education I would undoubtedly be in even greater need, I have not been able to secure a stable financial life; I need to be better trained for “workforce needs”. But I don’t regret my education one bit, and as mentioned above, seek to gain even more education in the future, for personal interests alone. I won’t likely make more money, but I’ll be happier, and maybe just a bit better of a person.

    To put it rather simplistically, we need bread, yes, and roses, too.

    1. You make a good point. In our modern society, people require highly specialized training in a field of their choice to earn an income that will qualify them to live decent, middle-class lives. Higher education is responding to this need by turning themselves into vocational schools with little or no attention to teaching the humanities. The result is a society of walking ignoramuses with little knowledge beyond their little areas of expertise. This is a danger to democracy, fertile ground for the rise of demagogues like Trump. I cannot think of any easy answer to this problem. Ideally, an undergraduate education would be extended to a fifth year, allowing students to expand their horizons beyond their majors. Of course, there is no chance of this happening. So, we are left with the sad prospect that the continuing and increasing technological basis of society could undermine democracy, leaving its citizens, even those with college degrees, as drones in service to their corporate masters.

      I wish you good luck in meeting your financial obligations. In a supposedly good economy, you are like all too many Americans struggling to get by. Something needs to be done about the extraordinary inequality of wealth. Unfortunately, as long as the Republicans can block any meaningful reform that will not happen.

  13. One thing you can learn in college is the basic Econ 101 lesson on supply and demand. The more people you train for a given job or profession, the lower the pay rate will be, because you are increasing supply. I do wonder sometimes if the administrators of these schools realize that.

    1. One problem is that the market and the economy fluctuates. One year it’s up, next year it’s down. This most clearly shows up where specific working-class skills are involved – we hear a chorus of complaints from carpenters who have just finished their apprenticeships and can’t get a job, and this is still ringing in our ears when we hear pleas from the construction industry who are being held up because there aren’t enough carpenters. And the same for every other skill. In other words, demand can fluctuate wildly and supply often fails to anticipate it.

      This may be less visually conspicuous in the professional classes because, I don’t know, maybe someone with a degree in ‘progressive sociology’ can bullshit their way into a job teaching ‘gender studies’ or vice versa.


  14. I humbly submit that the goal of higher education is not merely learning information but learning how to think critically and analyse it, and this applies to almost all disciplines.
    The neoliberal goal is merely the former as also produces a populace that is easier to control.

  15. ‘Reducing credits’ and ‘compressing classes’ seems to mean a reduction in salaries paid to the educators. This would translate to either lower paid faculty and/or fewer faculty. This also means fewer staff are needed. Universities and colleges would shrink, and some would be closed.

    1. And a grave problem added to the already sad lot that is the adjunct professor.

      I dare say this is a case of a genuine “intersectionality” situation.

  16. When I was leaving high school (30+ years ago) in Canada, my friends and I had a big discussion about whether to go to university or college (community college in the US). We understood that university was “more learning” and college was job training. My father was against me going to university because he came from a generation where you went to college or trade school to learn a (usually technical) job that you stuck with for the rest of your life, so you could start earning a living.

    I decided to go to university and I didn’t know what to do with my degree once I’d finished but I found that it opened doors to jobs and careers that I never would have thought of or been qualified for had I gone to college. Some of my friends who went to college ended up laid off later in life as their jobs disappeared or downsized and had to go on unemployment or go back to school. The friends who went to university have generally remained employed, though often in fields that they wouldn’t have dreamed of when they were doing their degrees.

    I tell this story often because these days there is a blurring between education and job training which is seeping into the universities (around the world – I worked at a Canadian university for 17 years and have been at an Australian university the last 2 years, and I hear similar stories from colleagues in the US and UK). Part of it is driven by the neoliberal agenda but a large part of it is also driven by the “student as customer” model promoted by governments and university administrations. Reducing university education to job training, while understandable given its cost to students and their parents, lessens its value. I don’t know any way of getting this across other than repeating it over and over again to anyone who will listen.

    1. Ah yes good comment. I found the same. The work I do didn’t exist when I was in school and the version of it was really something not taught. It was the education I received that allowed me to adapt to the changing landscape of jobs and do work I enjoy. I have been consistently and pretty much happily employed since graduation.

  17. There was a recession when I graduated with my first degree. A friend was working her grocery store job as a cashier after getting her teaching certificate. A lady bragged to her in her line, “my daughter is going to university. You shouldn’t work here all your life. You should go to university”. Think how pompous that is. Some people like that work. Some people don’t have the academic interest to go to university. It gave my friend great pleasure to point out that she had already gone to university and in addition got a teaching degree and was in fact a teacher. Also the guy bagging the groceries is an engineer. Of course things turned around in the economy and she and the engineer were gainfully employed in the jobs they chose but in that moment saying that was satisfying.

    1. I’m reminded of someone who, in a “follow ones bliss” mode (with mixed results), was singing his Italian songs in an Italian restaurant. Singing 5-6 nights/week, he soon enough worked up a repertoire of at least forty Italian opera, pop and Neapolitan songs (more than he would ever have memorized as a voice major).

      Out of a sense of courtesy and regard for customer service, he was always mindful of the need to not burst into song at a table adjacent to another table where a server (servant, eh?) was taking an order. On one such occasion he requested the customer’s indulgence to delay singing a couple of minutes until the server could finish taking the other customer’s order. The customer replied, “Well, they’re just employees.” (Obviously, the apotheosis of “situational awareness.” Right, they’re “just employees,” not worthy of much consideration and respect.) I suppose that the other customer was “just a customer,” eh? Perhaps the response would have been different had he stated his request in terms of making it easier on the other customer in giving his order to the server.

  18. It seems to me that the role of an education system in a democracy is to provide the mental/behavioural tools for one to optimise one’s journey through life. This involves acquiring the skills of reason and critical thinking and at least a general knowledge of science, history, geography and the world’s cultures. The outcome of this type of education may result in a more informed voter, hopefully contributing to a functional society. Vocational outcomes from one’s education are often unpredictable, particularly in a time of rapid technological change.

    Anyway, that’s how my education turned out.


  19. Alas, the higher education system in Britain has also been turned into a factory for producing worker bees. Around half of 18-year-olds now go to university, and whilst broadening access to higher education is something I’d applaud (having benefitted from free university education myself, all the way to Ph.D. level), it’s clearly not working. Britain is no longer training enough doctors, nurses, vets and other essential occupations. Many graduates now find themselves in jobs that simply don’t require a degree, but are still burdened with tens of thousands of pounds of student loan debt. And when institutions such as the University of Birmingham (a member of the Russell Group of leading research universities) offer degrees in golf course management, I’m grateful that I did my degree forty years ago.

    1. The UK seems to have overreacted and created too many universities and areas when they didn’t have enough after WWII. “Golf course management” belongs in a hyperspecialized trade program, like the Quebec vocational education system, or the AEC. Even a DEC (trade college diploma of the other kind) has general education components to do a bit of “thinking to think”.

  20. When I began teaching at a liberal arts college, its dominant ideology was ‘give the students a “walled garden” in which to take intellectual chances as they experimented with their minds.’ The ‘teach and learn for citizenship’ thing wasn’t there, and (frankly)the early 1970s students probably knew more about citizenship in a democratic polity than their professors, since many of them were on campus and in the streets protesting the betrayals of the Viet Nam War, Nixon et al.

    By the time I retired neither of these goals was being realized, despite the (hypocritical) mission statements in the catalogs and on the web sites. Students and parents had come to believe–and who can fault them?–that higher education was just too expensive an investment for ‘taking chances’: if a college degree at a private liberal arts institution will cost them a quarter of a million dollars (and this is a fair estimate), then that commitment ought to insure two outcomes for the matriculating students: a ‘great college experience’ and a good job after graduation.

    Thus most students expect bouquets of ‘A’s’ and a fast-track route into the white-collar world. They get both, too! (or at least the first) What they don’t get is a sense of how democracy works and how to keep it working. Or the intellectual skills and subjects with which to make them critics of the very business-based institutions where they intend to be employed.

    I know, I know. . . old fartism. Yet consider ‘woke’ on the left and fascist nationalism on the right. Both are symptomatic of the collapse of the middle, of which one of the caissons was a liberal education.

  21. Imagine a person who betrayed no sense of a liberal arts education and the values it is based on: respect for difference, broadening one’s views, exploration, creativity, curiosity, etc.

    Is there anyone you can think of in public life today – in sports, or business, or entertainment, or politics – who fits that description?
    THAT’S why a liberal arts education is absolutely essential!

  22. For better or for worse, capitalism works to underlie and control education and research. Responsible citizenship comes with democracy.

    That said, social efforts to reduce Gini and promote education and research by making it accessible to all (i.e. sponsoring it by taxes) works AFAIK well (see the Nordic countries).

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