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Holding the Liberal Arts Line from the GOP Attack

Dr. Ibrahm H. RogersDr. Ibrahm H. Rogers

According to Gov. Pat McCrory (R-N.C.), I am a member of the “educational elite.” Administrators and professors like me have ominously taken over our public colleges and universities. We are offering worthless courses that offer “no chances of people getting jobs.”

In a national radio interview Tuesday with Bill Bennett, U.S. secretary of education during the Reagan administration, McCrory specifically attacked gender studies and Swahili language classes as not worth our tax dollars.

“If you want to take gender studies, that’s fine. Go to a private school and take it,” he said. “But I don’t want to subsidize that if it’s not going to get someone a job.”

This is not new. Conservatives and many liberal scholars regularly attack gender studies (and the like) as lacking purpose, as being political, as if all of the other disciplines in the academy are not political through their maintenance (or challenge) of the status quo.

But this strategy appears to be relatively new, a new way to attack liberal arts, which for Republicans, produces too many liberals, too many radicals, too many critical thinkers. In the 2012 election, the GOP tried to reduce the electorate to win. That failed. Now, they are trying to dumb down the electorate by shelling our factory of knowledge.

McCrory was very clever in attacking gender studies and Swahili. He did not attack the hallowed ground of history, philosophy and anthropology. He condemned the margins to gain bipartisan support to one day attack the liberal center. Today, it is gender studies. Tomorrow, it will be Africana studies. In a year, it will be philosophy and history. Every day it is the liberal arts.

We must understand that within this political context, when you attack gender studies, Africana studies, queer studies, you undermine the livelihood of your own discipline. The more we strengthen the margins, the more we strengthen liberal arts.

Jobs are one of the more pressing issues of our day. Republican governors from McCrory to Florida’s Rick Scott to Wisconsin’s Scott Walker are using this angst over jobs as a hammer to smash the liberal arts.

“I am going to adjust my educational curriculum to what business and commerce needs to get our kids jobs, as opposed to moving back in with their parents after they graduate with debt,” McCrory said. “What are we teaching these courses for if they’re not going to help get a job?”

Gov. Walker of Wisconsin proposed tying funding to performance, which “means not only degrees, but are young people getting degrees in jobs that are open and needed today?”

GOP politicians are not alone in desiring to give the keys of education to men and women who only care about their bottom line. They are not alone in stressing higher education for jobs. Parents of all ideological persuasions often express similar concerns, steering their kids toward courses and majors that will ensure jobs upon graduation. And an all-time high of 88 percent of freshman said the ability to secure a better job was a very important reason to go to college, according to UCLA’s national 2012 Freshman Survey.

If politicians succeed in tying funding to jobs, which is certainly possible, then they will force the public administrators they hire to follow the jobs doctrine. And administrators will, in turn, force their staffs to follow the doctrine. Liberal arts faculty may become the only group dedicated to higher education for active citizenship, for happiness, for knowledge, for a life of intellectual activity. They will be forced to hold the line.

It is a line between a society of capital agents or change agents, a nation consuming products for instant satisfaction or consuming knowledge for long-term joy. It is line between education for career or education for life, mass manipulation by politicians or mass critique by informed citizens. Unfortunately, we are already crossing the line.

But liberal arts will live. The so-called educational elite will continue to rule. We will not give up our academic freedom without a fight. We will hold the line, if no one else will.

Dr. Ibram H. Rogers is an assistant professor of Africana Studies at University at Albany — SUNY. He is the author of The Black Campus Movement: Black Students and the Racial Reconstitution of Higher Education, 1965-1972. Follow on Twitter at @DrIbram

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