Should China be our model in higher education?

The notion that universities should teach only subjects which are useful and profitable is nonsense.
Thomas C. Reeves | Jan 3 2012 | comment  



In the December 31 issue of National Review, one of the leading conservative journals in the United States, the editors agreed (one assumes without tongue in cheek) with the mainland Chinese Communist policy of funding college majors in accordance with graduate employment rates. Science, engineering, and business would flourish under such a course of action, of course, and the social sciences, excluding economics, and the humanities would flounder and shrivel. They declared, almost gleefully, that this educational pruning would shrink the numbers of the "Occupy" movement and drive the "liberal professoriate" to fury.

This requires some further thought.

In the first place, it is true that China's mainland government is determined to increase the nation's wealth and power through science, engineering, and business management. Why should the world's most populous nation have the second largest economy when it might well become the first?

In 2006, for example, the government announced a 15-year research and development program that would receive 2 percent of gross domestic product by 2010 and 2.5 percent by 2020. In 2008 a Thousand Talents program began recruiting established scientists everywhere under age 55 with lucrative grants and salaries to live and work in China. Four years later, officials rolled out the Young Thousand Talents program, featuring even more generous offers to attract scientists under 40.

Throughout this push, the number of Chinese universities has grown, and the number of degrees in science has soared. In 2006, for example, as many as 1.5 million science and engineering students graduated. The China Association for Science and Technology has more than 4,000 members. An official of the Association said recently, "The Chinese culture has a high respect for education, and families want their child to have a PhD, and will invest almost every coin they have in their child's education..."

But what about the humanities and social sciences in China? Not surprisingly, they seem to be withering where they exist at all. In one multi-million dollar race for general research funds offered by The Research Grants Council, arts and humanities projects have the lowest rate of success. (Physical sciences came in first followed by business projects. As early as 2004, the country had 47,000 MBA graduates.) One fine arts dean lamented, "Among all the universities, only we have an anthropology department." It has about 20 students and without funding will probably grow smaller.   

Communist officials, quite naturally, prefer disciplines that can demonstrably increase wealth and power. More contemplative studies focusing on the search for meaning, beauty, truth, and justice are potentially dangerous in countries run by totalitarians. Should we take the advice of the National Review editors and link academic offerings to job lists, wouldn't we too be admitting that we are uninterested or perhaps fearful of ideas that have made the West the greatest engine for prosperity and intellectual and political freedom the globe has ever seen?

What about the belief of the editors that the "Occupy" movement consists largely of unemployed or underemployed liberal arts majors, whining about their college debts? Even though such people were interviewed by journalists, there is no solid evidence that they amounted to more than a fragment of the occupants. There is even less evidence to support the belief that all liberal arts grads are bums and anarchists.

On the other hand, the editors are undeniably correct in observing that professors in the humanities and social sciences are almost entirely of a single mind. The Liberal Arts today should be called The Leftist Arts. But having acknowledged this truth, the fact is that apparently little can be done about it short of the destruction of such disciplines, which is no doubt what the National Review editors had in mind. (Ironically, they are among the most literate and broadly educated journalists in the world.)

Do we really want to have university curricula in the United States barren of history, art, literature, film, music, religion, psychology, literature, political theory, and allied studies? That's a goal in China, of course, which is still jailing and killing political and religious dissidents. But do we want that flag of anti-intellectual and totalitarian fervor flying over American campuses as well? Do we really want all of our best and brightest to serve exclusively the state and the corporations as scientists, engineers, and business experts? Is there no room in academia for anyone else? The answer is negative should studies be linked exclusively to jobs.

The editors' proposal is interesting, but it is unlikely to amount to anything. The great private and public universities in America will not abandon the humanities and social sciences, even if they no longer require much student exposure to them. These campuses are fountains of intellectual engagement and scholarship that will not dry up.  And one cannot imagine a federal government that would simply embargo funds to entire disciplines just because they are governed by leftists and are perhaps unable to find immediate employment for graduates. The same is true for the wealthiest foundations--themselves run by the Left.

It seems wiser to let things on campus work themselves out under current, nearly laissez-faire policies. American undergraduates well understand what fields are likely to be the most lucrative, and they are already gravitating toward them. In recent years, entire liberal arts campuses such as Carthage College in Wisconsin have nearly become business schools. People working on, say, a doctorate in history, philosophy, or theater know well how difficult it will be to find a meaningful job. (The market for historians has been lousy since the early to mid- 1960s, and today all sorts of "independent" historians are available for a pittance.) They soldier on, most, no doubt, in love with their research and smitten by the desire to teach.

In the United States today, science, engineering, and business win the vast bulk of foundation and government grants, and qualified people enjoy top salaries in both the public and private sectors. The pursuit of wealth, power, and prestige are almost always and everywhere paramount. Meanwhile, the humanities and most of the social sciences take the crumbs left over, if that. This was true when I received my BA in 1958 and remained true throughout the four decades I myself soldiered on as a history professor.

If conservatives wish to spend time and energy on reforming American higher education, let them think less about China and more about the courageous minority at home, like the National Association of Scholars, who refuse to surrender the campuses to the low standards, political correctness, faddism, and shallow vision of those who rule them.

Thomas C. Reeves writes from Wisconsin. Among his dozen books are Twentieth Century America: A Brief History, and biographies of John F. Kennedy, Joseph R. McCarthy, Fulton Sheen, Walter J. Kohler, Jr and Chester A. Arthur.



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