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The latest in vocational ed

Thanks to a half-million dollars in We the People’s tax money, the latest thing in trade schools is being established at the University of Central Arkansas in Conway, better known as UCA. Dubbed a Cyber Range, this computer system is designed to let students become specialists able to spot a cyber attack, fend it off, and predict or prevent other cyber assaults. This state’s governor, ordinarily the most cautious of leaders, seems barely able to contain his enthusiasm for this newest form of vocational training.

“The threat from cyber crimes is very real,” explained the Hon. Asa Hutchinson, who in another life was an under-secretary of Homeland Security in the nation’s capital. He rightly calls cyber warfare “a threat to our country” and to “every industry group.” So he proposes to mobilize this state’s whole educational system against it. And raise a new youthful army of students to defend Arkansas and the rest of the country against the cyber-savvy enemy. To arms! Or rather to your computers!

Allow us to raise a question—or several of them—before taxpayers, school patrons and all concerned are trampled in the rush to man the electronic barricades: Just who amongst this coming generation would like to take on this high-risk occupation of cyber-security expert? The high risk is that of being summarily dismissed when the latest security breach is uncovered and somebody is made to pay for it. As has been happening with alarming frequency of late, exposing citizens’ confidential data to cyber-thieves or just mischief-makers. Confidential data like Social Security and credit-card numbers. Which is what happened at Equifax Inc., one of the country’s biggest credit-reporting services. And somebody or maybe a whole slew of somebodies had to be held accountable in order to appease Congress and the rest of the country.

It’s an old question dating back to Plato’s time: Who will guard the guardians? And the answer these days is anybody willing to risk immediate dismissal when the electronic walls are breached by an enemy that never sleeps.

It was a red-letter day at UCA when this cutting-edge tool in high-tech security training was announced and the usual swarm of highly certified dignitaries gathered to celebrate the august occasion. After all, when a governor who exercises such influence over a state university’s budget invites educators to a press conference, it’s less an invitation than a command. So there they all were, gathered for the photo op like the prudent college administrators they are—President Houston Davis of UCA, Dean Stephen Addison of its College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics, et many al. For UCA says it hopes to begin offering a bachelor’s degree in cybersecurity as soon as next fall.

Dean Addison displayed his fluency in cyberspeech the way scholars of a different age lapsed into Latin: “We proposed bringing a cyber range here to UCA in support of our developing a cybersecurity degree program. With the cyber range, we will be able to inject viruses onto the range without putting a free-roaming virus on the Internet. Students will be able to learn cybersecurity in real-time systems.” Some of us hadn’t been so assured since scientists told the American public that there was no danger of radioactivity being spread by the nuclear test explosions in the far Pacific.

“This is another opportunity for students at UCA to gain real-world experience and to develop and enhance skills needed in today’s ever-changing technological world,” proclaimed President Davis. How many folks can still remember a time when undergraduates could receive an education, as opposed to training, before being hustled off to graduate programs in specialized fields? Why train people for highly specialized jobs before assuring that they first get an education? Or would that be unspeakably responsible?

By some accounts, there are half a million job openings in cybersecurity today; but what happens when nine-tenths of those jobs become obsolete, as is bound to happen in our “ever-changing technological world,” as President Davis calls it? What has the recipient of a B.A. in cybersecurity got to fall back on when the job he or she trained for is automated? Does UCA require its students to demonstrate proficiency in algebra or a foreign language as a step toward becoming broadly educated? Does it require history or economics so that graduates have a sense of business cycles or the perspective necessary to anticipate change in demand for specialized jobs?

Do stay tuned, Gentle Reader, for further equally impressive or rather equally depressing developments if you can stand it.

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

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