Education's discontents

Remember those state funds set aside to help needy students get a college education? That $9 million would no longer be available under a new law devised by the masterminds in the state's misnamed Department of Higher Education, which keeps adopting lower goals. That department is directed by Maria Markham, who seems less interested in preparing the state's students to become educated citizens of a self-governing republic. Instead she seems intent on molding them into whatever the state's job market demands.

These new Arkansas Future Grants would be reserved for students specializing in science, technology, engineering or mathematics. Or in some other field of study much in demand at the moment, like welding. A scholar of another century, José Ortega y Gasset, called this process the barbarism of specialization. Now it's struck again, and it's a low blow. To quote Director Markham, "There were no restrictions on [the old grant programs]; you could major in anything, go anywhere. It was also available at our private institutions." But this new grant "is much more targeted, much more aligned with what we know we need. We know we need STEM graduates; we know we need people in high-demand fields."

Who is this ubiquitous We in need of more technicians and fewer independent-minded citizens who might ask pointed questions, raise doubts about the course of society, and generally act like free spirits? These subversive types might feel it necessary to become leaders of the loyal opposition in a democracy. Even at the risk of being called troublemakers. Why, they might even threaten the complacency of a society dedicated to filling job slots instead of raising questions about how best to lead the good life. These are the kind of questions that have attracted the attention of disturbers of the peace since Socrates' time. Can't have that, not when the job market demands robots who will just follow and fill orders without asking why.

Education, the real thing instead of just job training, will always have its discontents, but that doesn't mean they're wrong. It may mean they're right enough to spark criticism from the defenders of the status quo. Our contemporary conformists would equate what was once called education into job training. They sound perfectly prepared to squeeze enough of these round pegs into square holes to meet their own quotas instead if asking a fundamental question like "What is the good life?" and then seeking to live it. Our "pragmatists," it turns out, are not very practical. Because they substitute the current demands the job market for all else, they condemn the next generation to worshipping the false gods of the marketplace instead of the wisdom that comes with study and reflection. And so these poor souls are condemned to drift from job to job instead of holding fast to first things.

Socrates might have amounted to something if he'd been a STEM graduate. Instead he wound up drifting through life trying to teach the rest of us about the good life instead of enjoying one complete with creature comforts--like a new chariot every year, the most sumptuous of wines and the whole business of keeping busy. He might even have gotten a job with a Department of Higher Education somewhere in ancient Greece and specialized in being a specialist. Until he wound up knowing less and

less about more and more.

O, education, what crimes are committed in thy commodious name! Instead of being a comfortable bureaucrat, Socrates wound up taking hemlock, pushed along by all the know-nothings he had vainly sought to educate in higher things.

While many of our contemporary legislators and even our governor are busy fitting the next generations into the job market, a Republican of another generation--his name was Abraham Lincoln--asked the simple question, "How many legs would a dog have if you called his tail a leg?" And he answered: Still four, because calling a tail a leg doesn't make it one. Let's begin by calling education education--instead of pretending it's a matter of supplying warm bodies to meet the demands of today's job market.

Today education has been reduced to another special interest with its own special legislative program, including Education Savings Accounts, and those who are fir and agin 'em. A state representative named Jim Dotson out of Batesville says these accounts change his bill from an educational program into "a definite pilot program"--that is, a model for all the rest of the state. While the executive director of the Arkansas Education Association, a euphemism for the teachers' lobby, says it remains opposed to "the diversion of tax dollars to private schools that are unaccountable in any form."

Both these estimable figures are playing word games instead of discussing the issue at hand, which is how much of our own money is our gracious government going to let We the People keep, spend and/or invest as we see fit. For without a proper education, it's all just sound and fury signifying nothing.

Paul Greenberg is the Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial writer and columnist for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

Editorial on 03/19/2017

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