By John von Heyking, May 12, 2011 in Uncategorized
Gwyn Morgan is the retired founding CEO of Encana Corporation, one of North America’s largest natural gas suppliers. He has also established himself in the media as a gadfly critic of the inefficiencies of universities, especially their business of teaching the liberal arts. His outstanding accomplishments in business and in public life make him well qualified to comment on the characteristics and skills necessary for people to succeed in the economy and as citizens. His basic critique is that universities are producing too many liberal arts majors who end up under-employed, and producing too few engineering, information technology, and health care graduates which are fields in which employers have great difficulty finding employees. Universities need to shift resources toward these vocational programs from the liberal arts, which don’t seem very useful.
Morgan’s evidence for the under-employment of liberal arts graduates is incomplete, as much evidence suggests that while these graduates have difficulty finding employment in their field immediately upon graduation, that within five years they match and even surpass those in vocations.
The standard rebuttal to Morgan’s criticism is that liberal arts graduates are critical thinkers and that those in vocations are not. Morgan’s response to these critics is this: “Apparently the engineers responsible for designing the transportation systems, communication networks, medical imaging devices and other wonders of our age are ‘trained seals,’ while medical researchers, physicians, technologists and those who learn specific skills are ‘regurgitators.’”
The criticism Morgan cites is of course weak. As I have reminded my own colleagues, students enrolled at the community college across town are trained to think critically. They think very critically about how to produce good agricultural products, how to build houses, how to fix cars, and more, recently, how to build windmills for the electrical company. These are valuable skills, and my wife wishes I had some of them.
But this gets us to the implicit gist of Morgan’s argument. Those college students think critically about the arts, but not about what a liberal arts education is supposed to consist of, namely, education to political judgment and to justice. The liberal arts are supposed to educate us as to what makes us a good human being, and not simply a good carpenter or auto mechanic, as worthy as these pursuits are. Morgan appears to consider this kind of education frivolous or perhaps a luxury. But he is inconsistent in thinking this.
Morgan argues that universities need to shift resources toward vocations. This might be the case. However, his argument is also a plea for justice. It is unfair to society to our students if universities fail to prepare students for the modern economy. He cites several examples of understandably disappointed liberal arts graduates who face challenges finding employment. Yet, in claiming that universities have treated these students unfairly, Morgan makes a claim for vocational education on behalf of justice, the subject of the liberal arts. His critique of the liberal arts is, indirectly, made in the name of the liberal arts.
The role of the liberal arts needs debate in society. But let’s understand the terms of the debate for what they are – justice, the subject of the liberal arts. And it’s up to society, whether through universities, families, public educators, or churches, to teach justice to the young. The liberal arts is one of the most reflective ways of doing this. And it is one of the most just ways too.