A recent press release over on Brookings.edu that summarizes a recent paper by Robert D. Atkinson and Stephen Ezell, who are calling on Congress to Support the Designation of 20 ‘U.S. Manufacturing Universities, is a breath of fresh air where the debate on (higher) education is concerned.
Despite what some academics might think, including Mr. McAfee who published this unbelievable post on the HBR blog site calling for us to stop requiring college degrees when every single job that doesn’t involve serving food is going more high tech every day, we need more college education, not less. The problems we have are a) it costs too damn much (which should not be the case because an educated society is a productive and innovative society, and if anything is going to be subsidized, it should be education) and b) we are giving too many people the wrong education. As those who follow me on Twitter will know (as I try to avoid the crushing weight of the fail whale), I do not lament the fact that Liberal Arts Colleges are Disappearing. How many english literature and classics PhDs do we need anyway? (The answer is not that many.) As long as we save the historians, so we don’t repeat the mistakes of the (recent) past, it wouldn’t hurt to have the number of literature and the philosawfical majors approaching extinction levels compared to the counts for science and engineering majors. (I’m not saying we shouldn’t study these disciplines, as we all should study them to a degree, but graduating tens of thousands of students when there are only so many teaching jobs opening every year is just a waste of money and potential all around.)
We need people focussed on science and technology and other pursuits that benefit the economy and them, especially where jobs are concerned. And to this point, after a decent grounding in the basic theory has been conveyed, we need programs with a strange focus on the practical. Even in Engineering, we only need so many designers — after that, we need manufacturers and maintainers. We need people with a grounding in the practical. Now, I know the academic among you will argue that university is about improving the mind and increasing the mental potential of the individual, the real world be damned, but lets face the fact that, right now, for the most part, we have no trade schools, we have no apprenticeships, and we have, in many industries, no other way of identifying someone who is likely to be intelligent and educated enough to do a job. The College / University degree is the passport to a job in today’s world, and its about time we had programs that were appropriate.
So the suggestion by Atkinson and Ezell that Congress should establish an initiative to designate 20 institutions of higher education as “U.S. Manufacturing Universities” as part of a needed push to strengthen the position of the United States in the increasingly innovation-driven global economy is one of the best, and most logical, suggestions I’ve seen in a long time. And since we are not going to return to the way of apprenticeship (which is the answer), let’s finally create the outputs that industry wants from Colleges and Universities. This doesn’t mean that all programs have to be practical, just that there should be practical options where they are needed and required by today’s society. It just makes sense. (So, as you all know, you can bet that Congress won’t do it. Especially since this would mean raising taxes to beyond the point necessary to prevent the budget reductions that are coming into effect that could cost America up to 1 Million jobs because the Republicans refuse to allow the rich to pay their fare share of taxes. But still, it’s nice to know that somewhere there are still some level, practical heads.)