McCrory jab stirs debate on liberal arts education

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Gov. Pat McCrory caused a stir Tuesday after making controversial comments about the relevance of a liberal arts education at public universities on a radio talk show.

“If you want to take gender studies, that’s fine, go to a private school and take it,” he said, responding to conservative host Bill Bennett’s quip about UNC-CH’s department of women’s and gender studies.

“But I don’t want to subsidize that if that’s not going to get someone a job.”

McCrory said in the interview that his staff is working on legislation to revamp the state’s higher education system and prioritize vocational education. He said his proposal would better prepare students for seeking employment after graduation.

“It’s not based on butts in seats but on how many of those butts can get jobs,” he said.

But UNC-system President Thomas Ross said the university’s value to the state should not be measured by jobs alone.

“Our three-part mission of teaching, research and public service requires that we prepare students with the talent and abilities to succeed in the workforce, because talent will be the key to economic growth … higher education plays a key role in ensuring a higher quality of life for all North Carolinians.”

Jan Boxill, a professor of philosophy and chairwoman of the faculty at UNC, also said people need to consider the benefits of a liberal arts education.

“Education is more than just training people for jobs today,” she said. “We help students become problem solvers and creators for the jobs of the future.”

Liberal arts teaches students critical thinking skills, which are attractive to potential employers, Boxill said.

“If we want to retain our status as educators in the state, nation and world, I think reasonable people will see that universities are where the innovators are,” she said.

Boxill said students studying philosophy often pursue careers in fields including law, criminal justice and entrepreneurship.

Sara-Kathryn Bryan, a sophomore majoring in women’s studies, said the skills she is learning will help her secure a job, but the value of her education is more than a pathway to employment.

“We are not the careers we have,” she said. “Ultimately it is the experiences we have and the things we learn and the skills we gain that will enrich society, no matter where we are employed.”

While the specific higher education reforms that McCrory will propose remain unclear, the UNC system has been developing its own five-year strategic plan — which aims to boost the state’s percentage of bachelor-degree holders to 32 percent by 2018.

The plan includes increasing science and technology degrees, but also highlights the importance of skills instilled by a liberal arts education like critical thinking.

McCrory’s deputy budget director, Art Pope, personally advocated a more balanced approach at a journalists’ roundtable last week — suggesting discussions on the topic might continue at the governor’s office.

“Do we need to look more at the STEM courses, at the advanced courses, at the mid-skills courses at the community college and high school level? Yes,” Pope said. “But that does not mean eliminating liberal arts.”

Contact the desk editor at state@dailytarheel.com.

[View the story “Reaction to McCrory’s comments” on Storify]

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