Opinion: Issue isn’t welding vs. Chaucer. It’s how to remove barriers to college.

University of Georgia professor Peter Smagorinsky responds to a recent column on the blog by University of Maryland economics professor Peter Morici.

In that column, Morici assailed the Obama proposal to expand enrollment at the nation’s community colleges by eliminating tuition for most students.

Here is Smagorinsky’s response:

By Peter Smagorinsky

ddndiplomaartThe AJC Get Schooled blog posted an essay by University of Maryland economics professor Peter Morici, in which he provides a scathing critique of President Obama’s plan to “gin up new entitlements that chase votes but make problems worse [by providing] free tuition at community colleges.”

I am writing to offer a belated response to aspects of his essay that I find problematic. My beef is not with his critique of the President’s plan, however. I am no expert on the economy, and really have no idea of whether the President or his critics understand the issues better.

But I do know a bit about education, and believe that his essay is much stronger on expelling vitriolic language dismissing people he believes to be beneath his contempt than it is on grasping the state of education and presenting solutions.

Community colleges, he asserts, are nothing more than “failing diploma mills” because they have low three-year graduation rates. Because he doesn’t understand the circumstances of many community college students, he appears to assume this statistic means that they never graduate at all.

The fact is, however, that people start at community colleges in many cases because it’s the only higher education they can afford. They often have to take semesters off to work, to deal with childcare and to interrupt their studies to support themselves in other ways. They might not finish in three years because they are part of a demographic that has trouble affording much of anything, much less postsecondary education.

When I taught at Oklahoma, the average undergraduate student was 27 years old and took seven years to complete her degree. Not because they were lazy and partying their way through school on their parents’ earnings, but because they were putting themselves through school and doing so in the midst of personal economic challenges.

I admire people who persist through obstacles, including the condescension of those who consider them, in Dr. Morici’s words, “dysfunctional students.”  As Dr. Morici puts it: “Community colleges admit too many students with deficient high school records and preparation, intractable personal problems, and poor study habits and executive skills” to compete in elite four-year such as the University of Maryland, which Morici compares favorably to Ivy League universities. The typical community college student to Morici is a “19-year old mother — who receives no child support — reads at the sixth grade level, can’t do algebra and has significant emotional and self-esteem issues.”

How Dr. Morici arrived at his understanding of the typical community college student is not available through his essay. Frankly, it appears to me he’s just making stuff up, contriving a caricature of the least prepared community college student and extending that image to encompass the whole community college population. That sounds like some weak reasoning to me. How curious that he would call the community college system a “fraud,” when his own reasoning is so absurdly founded in fabrication.

If I were to take Dr. Morici’s reasoning and apply it to the economics profession, I’d say that economists are all knuckleheads because Jim Cramer puts on a clown show on TV to gin up investments in dubious corporations. If I went that route, you’d justifiably consider me to be an idiot.

Dr. Morici does have a solution, however, consistent with his belief higher education’s purpose is solely oriented to job preparation, an assumption at odds with traditional purposes for attending college. The University of Georgia’s motto is “to teach, to serve, and to inquire into the nature of things,” not “to get your kid a job,” even as getting a job is what happens to most of our graduates, including those in fields that Dr. Morici ridicules throughout his essay.

As reported in the Red & Black, “the unemployment rate for young college graduates has risen from 5.5 percent in 2007 to 8.5 percent, while underemployment is up from 9.6 percent to 16.8 percent.” The worst-case scenario, then, is about 83 percent immediately find work in their fields.

Dr. Morici’s list of villains includes “’progressive’ state lawmakers” who seek to flatten out social hierarchies of the sort advocated by Morici through such measures as providing affordable postsecondary education. Primarily, he uses dismissive rhetoric to characterize those with whom he disagrees, rather than offering anything resembling a fact.

Instead, he invents caricatures, just as President Reagan did with his nonexistent Cadillac-driving “Chicago welfare queen in the 1970s to symbolize his denial of public assistance to the poor.

Dr. Morici unveils his values in full as he reaches the crescendo of his diatribe. In affirming his belief in the strictly vocational role of universities, he proposes to institute programs that “have more structure and don’t require students to write essays about Chaucer or affirm a left-wing professor’s feminist critique of capitalism. [These useful programs] simply impart skills. Rather than expanding useless liberal arts programs, ATTF grants could improve the quality of what goes on in both community colleges and private training institutions at a lot less cost. America doesn’t need any more bogus BAs in art history, but it could sure use a few more welders.”

Ah, those damned women, and left-wing to boot: at it again, meddling in men’s business. Can’t they see how well conservative men managed the economy in the first eight years of the 21st century? Can’t they understand how useless they are, along with the rest of the liberal arts?

Dr. Morici believes we need more welders than bogus liberal arts majors, those pinheads who waste their time writing essays about Chaucer. First, I would never impugn the value of welders, who play a key role in society. Without them, the University of Georgia could never have been built, nor could bridges and other essential infrastructural elements of an industrial society. My hard hat is off to them and their important work.

Morici’s patronizing contempt for the liberal arts comes across to me as rather ignorant, however. Here’s what I got from being an English major who wrote papers on Chaucer: I learned how to recognize and critique hypocrisy and foolhardiness. English majors engage with literature that comments on the human condition, often illuminating the folly of society and its institutions, and use the tool of writing to construct their understanding of the role of the arts in symbolizing humanity’s struggle for meaning.

I imagine that if he were writing today, Chaucer would draw on a lot more material from economists than he would from those working men and women who sacrifice much to slug their way through community colleges amidst the challenges of inequitable economic conditions. Professor Morici claims it’s their lack of character that makes life such a struggle for them, rather than the economic system that places infinite barriers in their way.

No wonder Dr. Morici wants the liberal arts shut down: It’s where we learn to recognize BS for what it is.

 

Reader Comments 0

17 comments
BCW1
BCW1

College is not for everyone but some type of post secondary education should be in todays world.

RealLurker
RealLurker

I find it disturbing that the debate about liberal arts degrees always has two extreme: One stating that Universities should only teach job skills, and the other that Universities are for life enrichment only and should not have anything to do with a career.


Universities should teach it's students skills that will prepare them for life and their chosen career.  If you want to learn AutoCAD or welding, there are technical colleges that do good jobs of teaching those skills.  If you go into banking or management, you need to understand math and language.  You also need to have a good understanding of history, literature, psycology, etc. to be able to manage people who work for you and your customers.


Most Universities, if not all, have career placement centers for their seniors and recent graduates.  If it was not the purpose of the University to advance a students career, then placement centers would not be necessary.  Most students start working very soon after graduating college.  I have never heard a parent discuss college for their children as an opportunity to "discover who they are" or anything of the like.  Every parent I have discussed their children's college plans with want them to get a degree from a well respected University for the income stability they perceive will be associated with that degree.  They want their children to be successful(usually meaning monetarily).  A University should try to prepare students for a career.


I have no problem with liberal arts majors and degrees.  I have no problem with STEM majors and degrees.  I do have an issue with students in any major who have no idea what they are working towards.  EVERY freshman student should have a goal for what they want to be doing in five years.  They should be working toward that goal, and should take classes and gain skills that help them toward that goal.  Many will change their mind after one semester, or one year, or two years.  That is OK.  But they should then develop a new goal and work toward it.  I have seen students and colleagues who have no idea what they are working for.  Students sign up for classes because someone else did and said the class is easy.  Work colleagues attend seminars because they include a free lunch.  Most students will be doing something totally different in 10 years than what they currently believe they will be doing.  However a person who changes his five year goal after three years will be in a much better position to be successful than a person who has no goals at all.

EdUktr
EdUktr

If readers haven't figured it out ... this column is a proxy for the teachers' unions and their anti-accountability, anti-choice and anti-reform message.

straker
straker

Most college students should know about the availability of jobs in their chosen major before embarking on the required courses of study.


If liberal arts will, in the years to come, produce less and less jobs, the "shut down" will happen.

AlreadySheared
AlreadySheared

Danny Noonan: I planned to go to law school after I graduated, but it looks like my folks won't have enough money to put me through college.

Judge Smails: Well, the world needs ditch diggers, too.


"Caddyshack"

class80olddog
class80olddog

From an insider in the community college realm - you would be surprised at the number of CC students that are there just for Pell - it not only pays tuition, but living expenses. 


My opinion is that people don't appreciate things that are given to them - students really need to have some "skin in the game".  It is not THAT expensive to go to Community College.

Astropig
Astropig

@class80olddog



"Skin in the game" is very important. Obama is doing a lot of damage that will be hard to undo by implying that the government can hand out "free" educations to students just for showing up.Community college is already affordable and accessible for all but a statistically insignificant number of students. This is just (another) cynical political ploy by a demagogue that has lived by class warfare and racial and ethnic division.


He could have easily gotten this through congress during his first two years,but he waited until he suffered a humiliating defeat in November. This is just spiteful partisan politics.

EdUktr
EdUktr

@Astropig @class80olddog

Obama's "free" community college proposal is part of his plan for dealing with the Republican Congress voters installed in November. For the next two years he will throw out ridiculously expensive ideas no one has ever heard of before—and then denounce Republicans for being naysayers. 

Astropig
Astropig

@EdUktr @Astropig @class80olddog


His proposals have a snowflake's chance. He challenged the Republicans to "win a few elections" and by golly,they did. Now the fun begins. Couldn't happen to a nicer guy.

bu2
bu2

@Astropig @class80olddog 

Austin offered free bus rides for a while.  People riding it for a block or two bogged down the system.


There needs to be a cost so that only those that are serious about getting an education are there.  Community colleges are not nearly as expensive as 4 year schools and they have friendlier schedules for people who work.  If it was free, it would bog down the system and result in big increases in costs with little benefit.

Don't Tread
Don't Tread

@Astropig @EdUktr @class80olddog Looks like Mr. "I won, get over it" will have to "get over it" himself.


PS: The best way to overcome barriers to college is to STUDY, make good grades, and stay out of trouble in high school.  Scholarships are an excellent barrier removal tool.

jerryeads
jerryeads

Hi Peter -

The greatest joy I have in finishing my very non-teaching career by teaching (some people tell me I'm getting better at it, anyway) at this relatively small and very new four-year college is that the majority of my "kids" are those determined to do a degree in spite of their circumstances. Morici is one of the many ivory tower types who have never poked their noses outside (or have assiduously forgotten it) and neither wish to nor have any clue what the "real" world is like - and seem to assume that said world should be made up of those who use the HOPE scholarship to pay for the bimmer in the frat or sorority parking lot, and the rest should be digging ditches. The American Dream is only for those who already have it. Thanx for having not forgotten the outside, Pete.

MaryElizabethSings
MaryElizabethSings

Outstanding rebuttal to Dr. Morici's contentions, Professor Smagorinsky.  You nailed the truth with every point you made.  Thank you.