Welding or history: What will MnSCU teach?

Welding vs. writing, machine shop vs. history — the battle for the souls of community colleges and state universities is on. The Star Tribune recently published a column by Fred Zimmerman, professor emeritus of engineering and management at the University of St. Thomas, who advocates an end to liberal education. Zimmerman urges legislators to:

“Work with the thoughtful MnSCU educators to improve relevance by shifting educational resources away from delusional and non-substantive, less-important general programs with questionable placement records toward the more sought-after technical programs such as welding, machinery and manufacturing, which are highly regarded by industry.”

Yep, that’s what I always thought college was about: welding and machinery and manufacturing. (Note that Zimmerman is not advocating that the University of St. Thomas or the University of Minnesota — both of which enroll students with substantially higher average incomes — abandon liberal education.)

In contrast, Alex T. Williams, a Texas student from a working-poor family, values the liberal education he got in a community college. Williams dropped/was pushed out of high school, then struggled to get a GED and a college education. He wrote:

“My English professor, Dr. Lisa Roy-Davis, required students to meet with her individually halfway through the semester (an approach that would not be possible at a university with large introductory courses). I was quiet during the meeting, which made it somewhat awkward, but we got to know each other better. At the end of the semester, I told her I was considering withdrawing from college to focus on working.

“To my surprise, she encouraged me to keep taking classes and offered to loan me books by authors who wrote about their struggles in college. I began emailing her summaries of what I felt about the books — and questions about what I should read next.

“The more I talked to her, the more comfortable I felt on campus. While the feeling of being an outsider never totally vanished, I no longer wanted to be invisible. I became a more engaged student. My grades improved. I began going to office hours of other professors to ask questions, which is how I found other mentors.”

Please notice: his mentor was an English professor, teaching precisely the kind of “non-substantive, less-important general” course that Zimmerman wants to abolish. His college at that time was a two-year community college, precisely the kind of college that Zimmerman thinks should focus on welding and machinery. Williams went on to get a B.A. from a state college and is now enrolled in a PhD program.

MnSCU, the Minnesota State College and University system targeted by Zimmerman, lumps together community colleges, state universities and technical colleges on 54 campuses across the state. MnSCU Chancellor Steven Rosenstone, seems to agree that college is about getting a job and helping Minnesota businesses. A press release issued soon after he took office in 2012 said that MnSCU would conduct a Workforce Assessment in order to “align its certificates and degrees, worker retraining and customized training programs with the needs of Minnesota business and industry.” The MnSCU press release quoted Rosenstone:

“By listening to Minnesota employers, we can obtain a greater, much more precise understanding of the state’s workforce needs. Armed with this data, we can ensure that higher education is delivering the right academic programs and preparing graduates with the skills necessary for the success of Minnesota’s businesses and communities.  By doing so, we will help more Minnesotans find fulfilling careers while at the same time helping to secure the state’s economic prosperity.”

Writing in MinnPost in 2014, Metro State professor Monte Bute characterized this MnSCU vision as “simple, appealing, — and terribly misguided.” Bute continued:

“’Work force development’” now trumps most other criteria for teaching and learning. While the chancellor and trustees would deny it, they seem to view MnSCU students as little more than merchandise, mass-produced to fill orders for its business customers. 

“But why must MnSCU measure success in the narrow terms of students’ fit with work force trends? Critical thinking, creative problem solving, and communication skills remain essential tools for leadership in a world desperately seeking transformative leaders — and yet MnSCU appears more interested in producing followers.

“The University of Minnesota and private colleges like Carleton and Macalester realize that high standards produce leaders, managers and innovators, while mediocre standards create a workforce whose fate it is to follow the orders of others.”

I wrote about this battle for the soul of universities in 2012, after listening to Rosenstone speak. What I said then still holds today:

Education is about more than transmission of work skills or fitting individuals to meet the needs of employers. We are also citizens, and need the tools of citizenship, which include critical thinking and decision-making.

While we are all workers, we all are also more than workers, and education is more than work training. We are mothers and fathers and friends and lovers and readers and thinkers and dreamers. Even as workers, we are more than cogs in an industrial machine. The work of writers and musicians and artists (and college professors) is real work. The work that women and men do in cooking, cleaning, and raising children is real work, too. A liberal education can give us tools that we can use in all of these dimensions of work and life.

NOTE: Alex T. Williams is now enrolled in a PhD program in communications at the University of Pennsylvania. If you want to see how well he already communicates, read “The not-rich kid’s guide to graduating from college with almost no debt.”

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