Anti-intellectualism and Employability

Sep 30, 2016 1:30:00 PM / by Dr. Michael Woolf

Dr Michael Woolf CAPA International Education

Thoughts on Education Abroad” is a monthly column written by CAPA The Global Education Network's Deputy President and Chief Academic Officer Dr. Michael Woolf.

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The Gift of Choice

In September 2014, I wrote about the relationship between education and employment. Since then the topic has moved inexorably further into the political and educational arena. “Employability” is fast becoming a mantra in the context of study abroad. In most contexts, it is used in a nuanced and credible fashion to demonstrate an awareness that our responsibilities extend beyond the theoretical development of knowledge. It also gives emphasis to the applied benefits of an educated sensibility which are both personal and societal; the individual is given the gift of choice – opportunities to find employment from a range of possibilities and the capacity to expand social and leisure-time activities. Lack of education restricts individual choice. In the context of society, an educated and fulfilled citizenry is likely to be more productive and more inclined to contribute to the enhancement of civil society.

Photo: CAPA Florence alumna Emily Kearns and friends. Photo credit to Kilian Liptrot.

There is, however, danger in the use of the term employability when it is allowed to become closely allied to, even synonymous with, vocational education. It is a tempting correlation: an ostensibly appropriate response to the increasing costs of higher education. The phrase “return on investment” has penetrated the rhetoric of higher education. It derives from the business sector in which money is invested in a particular enterprise. As a metaphor, it has tenuous validity in an educational environment. A return on investment is measured by relatively simple outcomes: profit or loss, good or bad. In the context of education, it fails as a metaphor by propagating the illusion that educational outcomes are similarly and simply measured: learning derives from encounters with new situations and ideas, inherently unpredictable outcomes. Study offers opportunities; it does not guarantee measurable returns.

The idea of employability is not always or necessarily discussed in simplistic and reductive terms. [1] Problems derive from politically motivated interventions that hijack the agenda of higher education. The demand, for example, that higher education should be structured to the needs of employers reduces the purpose of universities to human resource agencies.

There is nothing wrong with vocational education. Preparing students for specific jobs is a perfectly creditable objective. It is not, however, except in a few specialized contexts, part of the core function of comprehensive universities. More complex, catholic concepts of the purpose of study are embedded in those functions. An increasingly strident political argument is that universities should justify their existence by focusing on training students to meet the needs of commercial and/or industrial enterprises; higher education, in this view, needs to be “relevant” to some narrow version of economic imperatives. Critically, the issue of relevance seeks to redefine the agenda of universities by external standards that are skeptical of entire fields of knowledge.

Why do universities exist?

A key role of universities and colleges of higher education is to encourage creative thought and a spirit of inquiry. Those functions are subverted if they are seen predominantly as agencies designed to meet the needs of the commercial-industrial sector. Their success or failure will be measured by standards other than those of educational impact.

Photo: Harvard (public domain)

A kind of anti-intellectual primitivism has gained credence in the public arena. This not only reflects a failure to understand the benefits of liberal education, it also misconceives the needs of industry and commerce. In the fluid environments within which we all now work, the primary need is for employees who are thoughtful, flexible and creative, not for drones to fulfill mechanical functions in dark satanic mills.

The philistine perception

The employability agenda has been hijacked to validate philistinism. Credence has been given to a myopic view of social and economic needs. It is used to argue that some forms of knowledge are intrinsically more important than others. Thus, advocates argue that studying, for example, technology, engineering, applied science is somehow preferable. 

This view has been reiterated across the globe by many politicians. Nicky Morgan, the Secretary of State for Education in the UK in 2014 argued that: “The subjects that keep young people’s options open and unlock doors to all sorts of careers are the STEM subjects: science, technology, engineering and maths.” In 2011, the Governor of Florida, Lynn "Rick" Scott, who, like Nicky Morgan, has a Law degree argued that: "We don't need a lot more anthropologists in the state... I want to spend our dollars giving people science, technology, engineering, math degrees.” Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin, who has a degree in East Asian Studies, intends (as he announced in 2016) to reflect similar priorities in funding allocations: “There will be more incentives to electrical engineers than French literature majors." In the Republican presidential debate in November 2015 Marco Rubio reiterated the reasonable view that vocational education offers important benefits. However, he chose to make that point by comparative denigration of philosophers: “For the life of me, I don't know why we have stigmatized vocational education. Welders make more money than philosophers. We need more welders and less philosophers." The statement also suggests that Rubio should retake English 101.

In case we believe that this rhetoric is the sole province of the political Right, President Obama displayed similar skepticism about the value of Art History (a comment for which he later apologized): "I promise you, folks can make a lot more, potentially, with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an art history degree."

China's Terracotta Army
Photo: China's Terracotta Army (public domain)

These views are not just found exclusively in the politics of the Anglo-American world. The Japan Times reported that, in 2015, the education minister informed national universities that they should cease teaching humanities and social sciences or move into areas with greater utilitarian values. In 2014, Uganda's President Yoweri Museveni asserted that it was "unfortunate that many universities continue teaching very useless courses at degree level rendering their graduates jobless after graduation…You ask these arts students what they can solve and they tell you, ‘for us we only think.’ Think about what?”

This view is close to becoming a political orthodoxy.

A further implication in much of this rhetoric is that the value of education is measured in personal terms (a personal return on personal investment): better jobs and financial benefits to individuals. The role of education as a social good and the critical function that an educated citizenry performs in the creation and maintenance of a productive civil society is missing from these perceptions.

Underlying this global trend (infection) is the idea that there is a hierarchy of knowledge; that universities need to be controlled so as to respond to the needs of the employer market place; that the values of the humanities have no significant role in personal, social and economic development; that we no longer need to teach young people about the meaning of histories, the power of the imagination, the forces that have shaped their reality. 

An ethos of ignorance

The education abroad community has as an obligation to challenge these assumptions. Students with a broad liberal arts education are employable precisely because they have acquired capacities and skills that will enable them to adapt to changing conditions. Study abroad expands rather than restricts the definition of education, creates citizens qualified to contribute to the well-being of our reality, and empowered to live richer lives within and beyond the marketplace.

Photo: Global education (public domain)

The prevailing political rhetoric gives succor to philistinism by demeaning the importance of the humanities and social sciences. It endorses ignorance of those forces that have created the world in which students live. It denigrates the power of the creative arts to transform the ways in which that world is perceived and experienced. The rhetoric validates an ethos of ignorance.

One response to this challenge to the value of the creative imagination is to argue that the humanities and social sciences are essential to the health of our civilizations. However credible the arguments, that is a defensive posture that engages in a debate on terms defined by narrow anti-intellectualism. We would do better by countering these assumptions with questions that expose this ideology of ignorance: tell me why history does not matter, why our national literature is irrelevant, why we should ignore the impact of creative arts? Why are statistics more important? Why is engineering a higher form of knowledge? The idea of a hierarchy of wisdom profoundly distorts the importance of all knowledge, that of the historian and the chemist, the poet and the engineer.

It is a critical error to argue that one area of knowledge is intrinsically more valuable than another. If vocational objectives are made a priority in the aspiration for employability, we are abandoning moral and intellectual responsibilities: universities have an obligation to make students think not just act. We must not be seduced by assumptions that reduce the function of higher education to the manufacture of cogs and drones trained to fulfill functions in the machinery of commerce and industry.

Trinity College, Dublin
Photo: Trinity College, Dublin (public domain)

I am not suggesting that we should ignore our responsibilities as educators to give students skills that will enable them to succeed in their careers. I am suggesting that there is an intrinsic danger in an indiscriminate, uncritical commitment to notions of employability that reduce the point of education to predominantly utilitarian aspirations. The skills that students need to make creative and effective contributions are not defined simply through functional criteria. Those skills are best developed by a humanistic and inclusive approach to teaching and learning. Simplistic models of the function of higher education give succor and credence to those who, for political and populist motives, seek to disregard knowledge that goes beyond mere utility.

We must not give philistines the tools to deride whole areas of knowledge and to dismiss intellectual aspiration and curiosity. We must not give them the tools to disregard the critical significance of the life of the mind. We must not give them the tools to take away our souls. These imperatives are implicit in the vision of Michelle Obama:

"The arts and humanities define who we are as a people. That is their power ― to remind us of what we each have to offer, and what we all have in common. To help us understand our history and imagine our future. To give us hope in the moments of struggle and to bring us together when nothing else will."


[1] In 2016, discussions held under the auspices of the Global Internship Conference  (June) and the Careers Integration Conference  (July), jointly sponsored by the  University of Minnesota and CAPA, demonstrated that concepts of employability can be both sophisticated and productive, as demonstrated by strategic discussions of career integration. The dangers and distortions occur when the issues are defined in simplistic political terms.

Thanks Mike!

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Topics: International Education