Monday, January 04, 2010

A Tired Argument: Universities as Worker Drone Factories
Today’s New York Times carries an article entitled Career U., Making College ‘Relevant’
A salient portion of the article states the following:

Even before they arrive on campus, students — and their parents — are increasingly focused on what comes after college. What’s the return on investment, especially as the cost of that investment keeps rising? How will that major translate into a job?

The pressure on institutions to answer those questions is prompting changes from the admissions office to the career center. But even as they rush to prove their relevance, colleges and universities worry that students are specializing too early, that they are so focused on picking the perfect major that they don’t allow time for self-discovery, much less late blooming.

I wrote this reply to add to the comments section only to find that it had closed by 3 p.m. this afternoon. Here is that reply:

The argument that universities should function as little more than factories producing obedient, unquestioning worker drones with a modicum of higher education to insure one’s middle class identity is hardly original. That same argument has been made for the past 50 years. And it remains as profoundly misguided as when it was first made. Moreover, if taken seriously, it can prove deleterious to the individuals who buy this approach and disastrous for the society which allows it to dominate its educational enterprise.

As a humanities instructor at a public mega-university, I constantly encounter students – and their parents – with enormous and inexplicable senses of entitlement regarding everything from grades to pedagogy. In the face of this barrage, I continue to offer my students the opportunities to develop skills in critical and creative thought, verbal, written and technological expression and working with other human beings collaboratively. For those who would doubt the value of liberal arts education, ask yourselves this: what career does not demand that its workers be able to think critically? to creatively problem solve? Which career does not demand proficiency in expressive skills? And in what job will one never have to work with others?

Perhaps more importantly, liberal arts educations offer students an opportunity to know the streams of history and culture that have produced their lives and the world in which they live. Without such knowledge, one has little idea of their own identity, much less the problems humanity has already faced and what we have learned from those mistakes.

The worker drone model is detrimental to both individuals and societies. At the individual level, it leads to truncated human beings who have squandered their potentials. The primary benefits of work focus on the bottom level of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs – food, shelter, clothing, et al. In work contexts where workers are valued and collegiality is fostered, it is possible that both belonging and self-esteem needs can be partially met. But in all such contexts, work is a means to human ends, not an end in itself. And higher level needs for transcendence and self-actualization go unmet in an approach which focuses predominately at the lower levels of the hierarchy. Indeed, unless one has thought about the possibility – if not the imperative - of transcending the everyday, it’s probably impossible to do so.

At a societal level, a reductionist approach which relegates higher education to mere career training (and let’s be honest, here – in today’s free market fundamentalist job world, who can really be trained for a career with any expectation of pursuing it to retirement?) means the loss of the ability for self-reflection and self-critique.

There are examples of societies which have pursued this path of focusing on the creation of unreflective technocrats pursuing uncritical political and economic goals while banishing those who would question such policies - its artists, philosophers and social theorists - to outer darkness. Perhaps the best example is Hitler’s Third Reich. The results of that experiment speak for themselves. Of course, one has to have actually studied history to know that and critically reflected upon it to recognize its import for us today.

The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes.

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