Some years back my wife and I attended an informational meeting in a nearby town where the plan was to build a new coal-burning plant to generate electricity. There were many questions following the presentation — which was clearly designed to let people think they were a part of the decision-making process (which we all pretty well knew we weren’t). At one point a farmer asked what would happen to the large area where the plant was to be built after it had run its course and was shut down. The representative from the company smiled paternalistically and noted that his models didn’t allow them to predict what would happen more than, perhaps, five years down the line.
At that point the farmer rejoined that he didn’t need models; if they didn’t build the plant he knew exactly what would become of the land, to wit, it would still be producing corn and beans! He received a well-deserved round of applause and the representative from the company that was proposing the plant was silenced. Silencing a bullshitter is a good thing, which is why the farmer received well-deserved applause. There needs to be more of that sort of thing.
In any event, I have been going on for many years about the value of a broad, liberal education to teach young people how to use their minds rather than to simply learn a trade — or what we now call a “profession.” I noted in a recent post that data show that in the long term young people will make more money if they do at least combine liberal courses in the arts and sciences along with their more “practical” major. I also noted a recent study that shows that increasingly parents encourage their kids to take practical courses of study and avoid the liberal arts as a waste of money. In a word, their parents are focused on the short term.
One of the comments I received was from a mother of several children who is rightly concerned about the high costs of higher education — now leaving young people with huge debts after graduation. They need to find a job and start paying back the loans they required to attend college in the first place. No question. I am not blind to the fact that many colleges now cost more than most families can afford and that debt is the name of the game. But my point in that post was that short-term thinking has become pervasive in this country and it has affected the way we think about such things as education.
The worry about that first job after graduation is understandable, but the notion that one must take a course of study that promises immediate employment (if there is such a thing) ignores the fact that people change jobs several times before reaching their forties and in many cases they must return to college and be retrained for a new job. It also ignores the critical fact, noted above, that the students who take a broader approach to education — at least combining liberal courses with their narrow major field of interest — will make more money in the long run.
But that’s the point: we have lost sight of the “long run” because we have been convinced by the business world — the world of coal-burning plants that generate electricity — that we must focus on the short run. In the business world, of course, this is profit and loss.
But, as I noted previously, business has no business determining the paradigms for education at any level. Indeed, even in business focus on the short term is not always the wisest course of action. We all need to think about the long term effects of decisions we make today. This includes such things as concerns about global warming which is not so long-term as it was a few years ago, and, of course, education where the long term — the young person’s entire life — is at issue.