In remarks kicking off a White House forum on job creation and the economy, President Obama repeatedly stressed the role of higher education. "I want to hear about what unions and universities can do to better support and prepare our workers -- not just for the jobs of today, but for the jobs five years from now and 10 years from now and 50 years from now," he said. "We still have the best universities in the world. We've got some of the finest science and technology in the world, we've got the most entrepreneurial spirit in the world, and we've got some of the most productive workers in the world." The Obama discussion of job creation continues today when the president will visit Lehigh Carbon Community College
The nation's universities have already implicitly justified their existence - and expense - to a generation or more of students that the main reason for attending university is to attain the necessary credential for potential employers. Universities uniformly have one devoted office or center that is dedicated to helping students make the transition into post-graduate life, namely and inevitably a "Career Services Center" (by contrast, there is no "Family Preparation" or "Transition to Being a Citizen and Neighbor" centers). Understanding well this implicit promise, alumni have begun suing their alma maters when their post-graduate job search has proven unsuccessful, and many believe such lawsuits to be anything but unjustified or frivolous.
President Obama has taken seriously his responsibility to use the "bully pulpit" (indeed, he seems at times more prone to jawbone problems than take the lead in actually advancing real solutions). Admirably, his wife has set a good example by growing an organic garden on the White House lawn - "the most important plot of land in America," according to Wendell Berry in his recent interview with Diane Rehm. But the President is doing great damage in his constant reiteration of the view that our universities and colleges should be seen solely as places of job preparation. This can only deepen the pervasive careerism that pervades our institutions of higher education.
Our universities and colleges were once devoted to the ideals of the "liberal arts." The liberal arts were oriented to teaching its students the art of being free, the art of attaining liberty. That art is above all the art of self-government, the art of learning the bounds of what is appropriate for human beings. Moreover, necessarily such an undertaking was an education in citizenship, the hallmark of the person educated for liberty (not bondage). By necessity, such an education oriented its charges toward res publica, toward public dedications that transcended narrowly private interest.
The current emphasis on "career preparation" is a profound betrayal of this ideal of the liberal arts, and can only further damage the frayed and perhaps irreparably degraded moral fabric of the nation. This emphasis elicits in two simultaneous dispositions among students: a utilitarian worldview that views all aspects of education as means for one purpose - a job, or more narrowly, "money-making" - and the transformation of the object of education of one devoted to commonweal to narrowly private interest.
The President has spoken on occasion in tones of moral condemnation over the behavior that precipitated the economic crisis, yet out of the other side of his mouth further promotes the mindset - and an educational emphasis - that would only deepen the preconditions that led to the economic crisis. A people formed with dedicated devotion to utilitarian and narrowly financial calculation, combined with extreme privatism of orientation, is the fertile ground from which just such financial chicanery and irresponsible indebtedness arises. Does he not have a sensible and liberally educated advisor in his circle that help him come to this realization? Given how many of his advisors come from our "elite" institutions - the Princetons, Harvards and Yales of the nation - and how deeply the orientation of these institutions has for a long time been precisely guided by such narrowly and perversely utilitarian aims, there can be little hope that he can be dissuaded from his mission of further destroying our institutions of higher learning. Indeed, it could even be said that those people who once would have graduated from these institutions for jobs on Wall Street are now instead flooding the halls of our governmental buildings in Washington D.C. What they have recently done for our financial system, surely they are aiming to advance through the public purse.