Truth for Sale! Why the Liberal Arts Will Not Survive the 21st Century–at Least in Wisconsin

Truth and workforce need are not so separable.

Wisconsin used to have one of the strongest public higher education systems in the United States. But that all seems to be changing at light speed. Adam Harris writes in The Atlantic about what is happening in Wisconsin, and why the rest of the country needs to take note. He begins:

It was built on an idea: that the university’s influence should not end at the campus’s borders, that professors—and the students they taught—should “search for truth” to help state legislators write laws, aid the community with technical skills, and generally improve the quality of life across the state.

Many people attribute the Wisconsin Idea, as it is known, to Charles Van Hise, the president of the University of Wisconsin from 1903 to 1918. “I shall never be content until the beneficent influence of the University reaches every family of the state,” Hise said in an address in 1905. “If our beloved institution reaches this ideal it will be the first perfect state university.” His idea was written into the mission of the state’s university system, and over time that system became a model for what public higher education could be.

But the backbone of the idea almost went away in 2015, when Governor Scott Walker released his administration’s budget proposal, which included a change to the university’s mission. The Wisconsin Idea would be tweaked. The “search for truth” would be cut in favor of a charge to “meet the state’s workforce needs.”

As someone who works at the intersection of the humanities and technology, I can say with confidence that the needs of a 21st century workforce and the value of a liberal arts education are not mutually exclusive. (This book makes a similar case from a business perspective.)

What I see happening is this: Some who promote workforce preparation and who prioritize the economic argument for what is being taught in schools sometimes use such language to mask their efforts to suppress education that prepare young people to participate equitably, critically, and creatively in a democracy. They don’t want young people to “search for truth.” They want young people to work, for cheap and for them.

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