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McCrory’s wrong answer on education

Does he really want courses to be tested for jobs potential?

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Should public universities de-emphasize Liberal Arts education?

Gov. Pat McCrory, in a national radio interview Tuesday, said he wants to change how higher education is funded in North Carolina. While speaking with conservative talk show host Bill Bennett, McCrory disparaged liberal arts classes and majors, sneered at the “educational elite,” and told Bennett that he’s instructing his staff to draft legislation that would fund colleges “not based upon how many butts in seats but how many of those butts can get jobs.”

We’re confused.

Surely, the governor wasn’t suggesting that a liberal arts degree offers poor preparation for jobs and careers, or that employers haven’t long appreciated the broad insight and communications skills a liberal arts education provides many of their employees. After all, McCrory graduated from Catawba College after majoring in political science and education.

Surely, the governor wasn’t saying that only N.C. students who can afford a private education should have access to the types of courses that build perspective, not just skills.

Surely, he wasn’t proposing that North Carolina try to legislatively measure the immeasurable: which majors and courses prepare students not only for a first job, but a satisfying career.

Surely, what McCrory meant to do was emphasize the importance of collaboration between higher education and business, a point he rightly made often during his campaign. He probably also meant to tell the radio audience that he wants to reward schools and programs that develop creative initiatives, as N.C.’s community colleges already are doing, to fill jobs employers say are vacant.

Surely, the governor was just unartfully getting to the bigger picture, which is that there’s a legitimate need for schools to regularly examine public education’s value and purpose. Universities have been doing that for decades – often when economies are poor and students can’t find jobs – and a UNC panel has been having exactly that conversation in recent months. Done right, it’s not one that threatens liberal arts, but one that can unearth opportunities to integrate the best of business, industry and liberal arts paths.

Surely, the governor isn’t proposing to legislatively commandeer that conversation. He did, after all, run a campaign touting the value of efficient and streamlined government, and it would be neither to strong-arm universities that are best equipped at analyzing all the marketplaces they serve. After more than 200 years, it’s fair to say that the UNC system, revered across the country, has done a pretty good job of it so far.

McCrory knows all this. So maybe his comments Tuesday were merely an acute case of preening. Maybe the governor was justifiably excited about his proposed synergy of business and education, but in a desire to establish his street cred to a conservative audience, he allowed himself to get led off the rails on education.

We hope so. Because otherwise, we heard a governor Tuesday who denigrated one of North Carolina’s biggest assets. We heard what seems to be a proposal for dramatic change to one of America’s best public university systems, one that not only has long equipped state students with an affordable, high-quality education, but with well-rounded learning that contributes to the intellectual and cultural foundation a vibrant state needs.

Surely, that can’t be it. Right, Mr. Governor?

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