The Kansas Senate wants a one-page explanation of higher education’s value. Here goes:
Kansas Senate Bill 191 would require state universities to issue a “prospectus” to each incoming student. On one page, it would give job placement rates and median salaries, average time between degree completion and job placement, and the number of years to pay student loans, based upon major. This idea recalls Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s recent attempt to erase the University of Wisconsin’s hundred-year-old mission of statewide community engagement, replacing it with job training. It is a nationwide, Republican priority.
What about the students themselves? With apologies to Bob Dylan: there is something going on out here, and the state legislators don’t know what it is.
This semester, my political philosophy students asked me to make the class longer. It seems they were not getting enough time to discuss the books and ideas in class.
Students could not stop talking about Herbert Marcuse, the mid-twentieth-century French philosopher who believed that our society was producing a “one dimensional man”: one who feared imaginary enemies and focused solely on earning and spending income. They devoured the work of Hannah Arendt, a Jewish emigre from World War II Germany. Famous for studying Nazi official Adolf Eichmann, Arendt argued that modern-day society made the activities of “work” and “labor” so all-consuming that most people had little time, or interest, in discovering what it meant to live a genuinely fulfilling, complete life, including political action. Arendt feared a slide toward “rule by nobody”: hardly any single person can be held accountable for the actions of business or government anymore.
Whether or not Eichmann really was a thoughtless bureaucrat, it remains true that citizens who ask critical questions, think, and act in politics can offer us release from a one-dimensional life of graduation, working only for a paycheck, retiring, and eventual death. This class is no left-wing indoctrination: up next are Leo Strauss, the intellectual godfather of modern-day American conservatism, and F.A. Hayek, the legendary libertarian economist who railed against government meddling.
Also at Emporia State, Dr. Joyce Thierer’s Women of the West class is taught on one long evening each week, ending at 10 p.m. Still talking, the students invited their professor to a local all-night eatery for more discussion about the changing roles of women— and pancakes. Our students come from all over, many from rural or exurban Kansas: Emporia and El Dorado, Great Bend and Gardner. They tell us that they have never seen or heard these ideas before. They are hungry for all the material we can give them, and then some. This is the first time I have seen this, since I started teaching in 1995.
Many of our current politicians did not graduate from college themselves, yet they want to control higher education. Instead, our students want to know what it means to live a fulfilling, complete life. Good teaching, great books, and their own curiosity and hard work can help them achieve real intellectual development, preparing them for rich lives and meaningful careers. So ends my one page defense of higher education.
Michael Smith is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Emporia State University.