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Lowman S. Henry

Lowman S. Henry

Chairman & CEO
Lincoln Institute
of Public Opinion Research

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Town Hall Commentary

Is a Liberal Arts Education Obsolete?

by Lowman S. Henry
 

Beset by rising costs, massive debt, excessive political correctness and questions over its relevance, the tradition of a four-year liberal arts education is under assault.

As well it should.

The concept of a liberal arts education extends back to the ancient Greeks and is governed by the theory that students should be exposed to a wide range of disciplines with the emphasis on building critical thinking skills that will have broad application.

That paradigm has worked for generations. But higher education today has perverted the quest for knowledge into factories of indoctrination and profit while failing to equip graduates for practical employment and even life in the real world. As a result, the time has come to question whether we are receiving an acceptable return for our massive and ever-increasing investment in the education industry.

Intellectual elites will cringe at the use of the word "industry." A few years back I was amazed at how disconnected from reality some educators have become when one professor wrote a letter to my local newspaper arguing that higher education cannot be viewed through the prism of economics, but rather knowledge was valuable just for the sake of knowledge.

Certainly there are those in society who can afford to study and earn a degree purely for personal enrichment. The reality is a four-year or graduate degree is but a tool to finding family-sustaining employment. For most individuals, in fact for our economy as a whole, higher education is a useless ornament unless it leads to practical application; in other words a good job.

On this front our colleges and universities are failing us. On the cost side of the ledger our institutions of higher learning compete for students by adding costly amenities that have turned many campuses into four star resorts. Students pay for this in the form of higher tuition, and fees which today rival tuition in cost. As a result students incur massive loan debt that makes it difficult, sometimes impossible, to establish a family and purchase a home.

After investing four — or today more likely five — years of their lives in a costly education increasing numbers of graduates are having difficulty finding work in their field. That is because higher education is stuck in an early 20th century model that simply does not adequately prepare students for today's employment opportunities.

U.S. Senator Marco Rubio, a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, succinctly pointed out that we have more need today for welders than for philosophers. There is, of course, limited demand for philosophers. In the meantime, industry cannot find enough qualified applicants to fill high paying manufacturing jobs. According to a national study five percent of skilled production and production support jobs currently are unfilled "simply because they can't find people with the right skills. Translated into raw numbers, this means that as many as 600,000 jobs are going unfilled."

And here is the kicker: A survey of manufacturers finds respondents reporting "that the national education curriculum is not producing workers with the basic skills they need — a trend that is not likely to improve in the near term." As a result, despite stubbornly high unemployment and underemployment, manufacturers will continue to export jobs to other countries simply because our system of higher education is failing to equip students for the jobs available in the 21st century economy.

Worse, the spectacle of student protests in recent weeks has undermined the foundational argument that a liberal arts education teaches students to think. It has become abundantly clear that our colleges and universities place the inculcation of Left-wing political correctness above critical thinking skills. So much so that students are demanding so-called "safe zones" so they don't even have to hear words with which they disagree.

As taxpayers watch increasing amounts of state budgets going to higher education, and students incur massive debts only to graduate without the skills employers need, the time has come to question whether it is worth the investment. Basically, a liberal arts education today has become an eight-track player in the digital age. If our nation is to continue to be competitive in today's global economy the time has come to rethink and redesign how we educate and prepare our young adults for productive employment.

(Lowman S. Henry is Chairman CEO of the Lincoln Institute and host of the weekly Lincoln Radio Journal. His e-mail address is lhenry@lincolninstitute.org.)

Permission to reprint is granted provided author and affiliation are cited.