Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may discern the will of God what is good and acceptable and perfect. Romans 12:2
You got to throw the corn down where the hogs can get to it, Georgia race-baiter Gov. Eugene Talmadge used to crow. In much the same spirit, North Carolinas new governor appeared on William Bennetts nationally-syndicated radio program last week and sneered at the UNC system for offering courses that have no chance of getting people jobs.
Bennett seems an odd assistant to help McCrory toss those stale hushpuppies to the tea party. The former secretary of education usually bemoans the failure of todays youth to read Aristotle. The author of The Book of Virtues admits to losing something like $10 million in the casinos and he once speculated that even though it would be wrong for America to abort all African American babies, the crime rate would go down.
McCrory keeps poor company but he had facts, even if he didnt understand them. Yes, only six percent of UNCs undergrad majors offer hope of immediate employment in that field. Fifty years ago, the figure would have been smaller; in those days, Americans respected college degrees but did not expect them to change a tire. If the only measure of a B.A. is a j-o-b, somebody has to tell the kids to burn the Bible, mulch Whitmans Leaves of Grass along with Shakespeare and Virginia Woolf, and offer choice of three majors sweet tea, cornbread or biscuit.
Im going to adjust my education curriculum to what business and commerce needs, said the governor. Right now, Im looking for engineers, Im looking for technicians, Im looking for mechanics.
A university education does open avenues to a career. But it does so in the same way college might create the prospect of a marriage; it happens, but falling in love isnt in the course catalog. And no fancy parchment is a product warranty. Life, as John Lennon wrote, is what happens to you while you are making other plans.
Many Tar Heels found McCrorys crass remarks about higher education unsettling. Neither the wisdom of our Creator nor the brighter angels of our humanity would wish us all to be engineers. Majoring in economics when God made you a poet is failure, not success.
Grades actually predict financial success more reliably than the choice of a major. Thinking critically, learning independently, and embracing your deepest values while respecting others trump an undergrad business degree in the long run. Nobody has a clear sense of what good jobs will require 10, 20, 30 years down the road, points out UNC sociologist Andrew Perrin. A rigorous liberal arts education prepares students for economies and communities whose only certainties are greater diversity and change.
Out beyond McCrorys intellectual cul-de-sac, the places thriving in America have much in common. Many are college towns like Austin and Chapel Hill. Regional economies rise or fall by their power to attract what Professor Richard Florida calls the creative class. These artists and professionals want healthy fun and tolerance for racial, gender, class and sexual differences. Music and theater help. Bike trails, coffee shops and natural beauty are a plus.
But what the creative class wants most are excellent schools and shared prosperity with equal rights for all. In return, they offer economic growth, civic engagement, community arts, and intellectual stimulation. Many earn top dollar but thats not how they validate their lives; they do well and do good by their passion for experiences, expression and community.
Places that attract such people become incubators of innovation, laboratories of community and invariably prosperous. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg explains that talent flocked to his city because of the music, art, drama, and inspiration it offered. His recent New York Times essay is entitled Cities Must Be Cool, Creative, and in Control. The hottest such creative city in America at the moment? Durham.
Once money poured through places like Birmingham, Ala.. The Magic City had iron ore, coal deposits, water power and cheap labor. Mills and mines flourished as did the Klan. But grinding poverty and racial violence saddled Birmingham with a reputation for oppression and rage. By the 1960s, business began to avoid that image; nowadays, it is the kiss of death.
North Carolina has a chance to cut to the head of the line. Our stellar universities draw scholars from around the world. Thanks to them and our homegrown talent, our culture has few competitors. Even in corners of N.C. that approach Third World poverty, we could promote sustainable development, develop green energy, create better schools, and make technological education the basis for jobs that would stop the best and brightest from leaving the state.
But things are sliding south, with higher education tuition going up and funding down. Our secondary schools have not been near the top in a century. In average wages, N.C. has always ranked near the bottom. In some counties. 40 percent of N.C. children go to bed hungry.
If Gov. McCrory wants us to dive for the Deep South where resegregated public schools are holding pens for the poor, wages low, profits high and the future dim, he should push school vouchers that rob our schools. He should pass Art Popes measures designed to keep voter turnout and wages low.
Those plans wont lift us up, let alone lead us forward. If we can embrace tolerance and attract talent, together we can fashion a new economy and a new social contract, rooted in our best traditions but gazing at the bright horizon.