Capitalism and Western Civilization: Education

William H. Young

A report by the National Governors Association (NGA), Degrees for What Jobs? (March 2011), threw down the gauntlet to American higher education regarding the 21st-century skills employers need in college graduates to help drive economic growth:

Rapid globalization, accelerating innovation, and relentless competition…are dramatically raising the bar for performance in America today….They are creating pressure on industries, companies, and workers to shift to sectors of the economy where innovation, imagination, and critical thinking—knowledge, that is—are the building blocks of adding value and creating wealth.

Currently, business and the states are not getting the talent they want—and students and job seekers are not getting the jobs they want. There are problems with quality. For instance, employers responding to a recent survey estimated that 40 percent of college graduates available to them do not have the necessary applied skills required to meet their needs. Almost one-third of U. S. manufacturing companies say they are suffering from some level of skills shortages.

The result is that the U. S. has a mismatch between the skills employers need and the degrees and certificates students receive.

What is the answer from the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) and its partner, the federal government? As Peter Wood apprised us in Better Citizens, it is that

College students are too much focused on their careers and developing narrow sets of skills. They need to awaken to their broader social responsibilities.” AAC&U would divert “a great deal of the time, energy, and resources of American higher education into promoting a progressive ideology that emphasizes diversity, multiculturalism, sustainability, and global citizenship.

On January 10, 2012, the Obama White House released a new report by the U. S. Department of Education, A Crucible Moment: College Learning and Democracy’s Future, the fruit of a National Task Force on Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement. At the event, AAC&U President Carol Geary Schneider said: “Pushing back against a prevailing national dialogue that limits the mission of higher education primarily to workforce preparation,” A Crucible Moment calls on higher education to advance “a vision with civic learning and democratic engagement an expected part of every student’s college education.”

Schneider saluted Miami Dade College, “which has already made civic engagement and social responsibility a general education requirement for all 150,000 of its first-generation students.” “College majors—including those that prepare students directly for jobs—need to play their own part in teaching students what it means to take responsibility for democracy.” Schneider invoked the spirit of the progressive philosopher John Dewey that democracy “needs to be born anew for every generation.”

A Crucible Moment dismisses Degrees for What Jobs? out of hand for “rejecting the value of what has differentiated U. S. higher education and made it an intellectual powerhouse and an economic driver.” Peter Wood evinced the irony of such immodest drivel in Too Much for Too Little. And some of my articles have examined how well higher education has achieved workforce preparation, warranting a turn to democratic engagement rather than responding to the needs expressed by the NGA.

Exchange showed that our postmodern college-educated elites as well as college students have little or no understanding of the economic principles upon which our free-enterprise economy works. As I argued in Competency and STEM, postmodern multiculturalism has emasculated the skills needed by college and high school graduates to work successfully in today’s economy. As summarized in Corporations, postmodern multiculturalism has implanted attitudes and beliefs in students directly opposite to those needed to prosper in the corporate workplace. Individual Responsibility drew upon Michael Barone’s Hard America Soft America (2004) in revealing that academic elites who operate in Soft America are not preparing students for the parts of American life subject to competition and accountability, the Hard America of business and the marketplace.

Instead, A Crucible Moment invokes inequality. The problems that “continue to erode the foundation of our democracy” are “unequal access to college and economic lethargy.” “Students are underprepared for college because of what writer and educator Jonathan Kozol (1991) refers to as ‘the savage inequalities’ of the nation’s K‒12 system.” Latino education “is not providing a democratic pathway to economic independence or social mobility.” Might we at least expect schools of education to bear some responsibility for the abysmal performance of K‒12 education over decades since A Nation at Risk (1983)?

A Crucible Moment acknowledges that “the U. S. is the only country where attainment levels among those just entering the labor market (25‒34 year-olds) do not exceed those about to leave the labor market (55‒64 year-olds)….The educational attainment level in the United States has remained relatively flat while other countries have…surpassed us.” What is the solution? The report faults “the inadequacy of federal and state funding that could make higher education more widely available” to meet “the requirement of a college credential for the twenty-first century employment market.”

What is the kind of credential being provided by higher education?  In “Tuning In to Dropping Out,” The Chronicle Review, March 4, 2012, Alex Tabarrok notes that the number of students graduating with degrees in STEM, computer science, and microbiology (whose skills create innovations that drive growth) have been flat for 25 years while those graduating with degrees in the visual and performing arts have doubled. He argues that “economic growth is not the only goal of higher education, but it is one of the main reasons taxpayers subsidize higher education.” He suggests that an argument can be made for federal and state funding to subsidize students in fields that contribute to economic growth rather than others—or making higher education more widely available.

David Glenn reported in “Business Educators Struggle to Put Students to Work” (The Chronicle of Higher Education, April 14, 2011) that

Student disengagement is at its worst in undergraduate business education. The family of majors under the business umbrella—including finance, accounting, marketing, management, and general business—accounts for just over 20 percent of all bachelor’s degrees awarded. There is pervasive anxiety about student apathy, especially in ‘soft’ fields like management and marketing, which account for a majority of all business majors. Business education has come to be defined in the minds of students as a place for developing elite social networks….

There is a heavy prevalence of group assignments in business courses: The more time students spent studying in groups, the weaker their gains in the kinds of skills business requires. Working in groups or teams doesn’t help students learn. Individual students don’t compose papers of their own. There is a perverse dynamic in group projects: students do the tasks they are most comfortable with and don’t learn; some shoulder all the work; the rest do nothing. Many end up not capable of performing calculations, making decisions required in the real world.

In “Anti-capitalism at Business School” (The Free Market, The Mises Institute, August 2000), James Sheehan stated that

After attending a leading business school for the last year, I have been witness to capitalist bashing that rivals that of high schools and colleges. The chilling part is that these schools are training graduate students to hate business, to worship the state, and to enforce politically correct attitudes into their businesses at all times...

But all the political correctness that has been imported into the management curriculum has not stopped the handwringing over ‘social responsibility’ and ‘ethics’ in business schools….The purpose of such courses is to undermine the moral legitimacy of business and to persuade future business managers of the urgent need for more regulatory restrictions on economic freedom….Business schools that adopt the ‘social responsibility’ agenda are doing their customers a real disservice, as true management training is being steadily diluted. But I have the satisfaction of knowing that the market will punish anyone who actually tries to practice the PC ethics taught in business school.

Contrary to the outrageous assertions of A Crucible Moment, even those students preparing for business careers, let alone others needed to apply critical skills to advance economic growth,  as requested by the NGA, are not receiving adequate workplace preparation by either higher or K‒12 education. In college, they have already been schooled in the progressive and postmodern multicultural ideology that AAC&U would advance. The academy needs to renew fundamental education in critical thinking skills as well as a real liberal education to meet national needs rather than, as Peter Wood warns, “turning students into political activists committed to causes of the left.”


Next week’s article will examine ideas about income inequality in the academy.


This is one of a series of occasional articles applying the lessons of Western civilization to contemporary issues relevant to the academy.

The Honorable William H. Young was appointed by President George H. W. Bush to be Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy and served in that position from November 1989 to January 1993. He is the author of Ordering America: Fulfilling the Ideals of Western Civilization (2010) and Centering America: Resurrecting the Local Progressive Ideal (2002).

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