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Opinion: Issue isn't welding vs. Chaucer. It's how to remove barriers to college.

University of Georgia professor Peter Smagorinsky responds to a recent column on the blog by University of Maryland economics professor Peter Morici.

In that column, Morici assailed the Obama proposal to expand enrollment at the nation's community colleges by eliminating tuition for most students.

Here is Smagorinsky's response:

By Peter Smagorinsky

I am writing to offer a belated response to aspects of his essay that I find problematic. My beef is not with his critique of the President’s plan, however. I am no expert on the economy, and really have no idea of whether the President or his critics understand the issues better.

But I do know a bit about education, and believe that his essay is much stronger on expelling vitriolic language dismissing people he believes to be beneath his contempt than it is on grasping the state of education and presenting solutions.

Community colleges, he asserts, are nothing more than “failing diploma mills” because they have low three-year graduation rates. Because he doesn’t understand the circumstances of many community college students, he appears to assume this statistic means that they never graduate at all.

The fact is, however, that people start at community colleges in many cases because it’s the only higher education they can afford. They often have to take semesters off to work, to deal with childcare and to interrupt their studies to support themselves in other ways. They might not finish in three years because they are part of a demographic that has trouble affording much of anything , much less postsecondary education.

When I taught at Oklahoma, the average undergraduate student was 27 years old and took seven years to complete her degree. Not because they were lazy and partying their way through school on their parents’ earnings, but because they were putting themselves through school and doing so in the midst of personal economic challenges.

I admire people who persist through obstacles, including the condescension of those who consider them, in Dr. Morici’s words, “dysfunctional students.”  As Dr. Morici puts it: “Community colleges admit too many students with deficient high school records and preparation, intractable personal problems, and poor study habits and executive skills” to compete in elite four-year such as the University of Maryland, which Morici compares favorably to Ivy League universities. The typical community college student to Morici is a “19-year old mother — who receives no child support — reads at the sixth grade level, can’t do algebra and has significant emotional and self-esteem issues.”

How Dr. Morici arrived at his understanding of the typical community college student is not available through his essay. Frankly, it appears to me he’s just making stuff up, contriving a caricature of the least prepared community college student and extending that image to encompass the whole community college population. That sounds like some weak reasoning to me. How curious that he would call the community college system a “fraud,” when his own reasoning is so absurdly founded in fabrication.

If I were to take Dr. Morici’s reasoning and apply it to the economics profession, I’d say that economists are all knuckleheads because Jim Cramer puts on a clown show on TV to gin up investments in dubious corporations. If I went that route, you’d justifiably consider me to be an idiot.

Dr. Morici does have a solution, however, consistent with his belief higher education’s purpose is solely oriented to job preparation, an assumption at odds with traditional purposes for attending college. The University of Georgia’s motto is “to teach, to serve, and to inquire into the nature of things,” not “to get your kid a job,” even as getting a job is what happens to most of our graduates, including those in fields that Dr. Morici ridicules throughout his essay.

As reported in the Red & Black , “the unemployment rate for young college graduates has risen from 5.5 percent in 2007 to 8.5 percent, while underemployment is up from 9.6 percent to 16.8 percent.” The worst-case scenario, then, is about 83 percent immediately find work in their fields.

Dr. Morici’s list of villains includes “’progressive’ state lawmakers” who seek to flatten out social hierarchies of the sort advocated by Morici through such measures as providing affordable postsecondary education. Primarily, he uses dismissive rhetoric to characterize those with whom he disagrees, rather than offering anything resembling a fact.

Instead, he invents caricatures, just as President Reagan did with his nonexistent Cadillac-driving “Chicago welfare queen in the 1970s to symbolize his denial of public assistance to the poor.

Dr. Morici unveils his values in full as he reaches the crescendo of his diatribe. In affirming his belief in the strictly vocational role of universities, he proposes to institute programs that “have more structure and don’t require students to write essays about Chaucer or affirm a left-wing professor’s feminist critique of capitalism. [These useful programs] simply impart skills. Rather than expanding useless liberal arts programs, ATTF grants could improve the quality of what goes on in both community colleges and private training institutions at a lot less cost. America doesn’t need any more bogus BAs in art history, but it could sure use a few more welders.”

Ah, those damned women, and left-wing to boot: at it again, meddling in men’s business. Can’t they see how well conservative men managed the economy in the first eight years of the 21st century? Can’t they understand how useless they are, along with the rest of the liberal arts?

Dr. Morici believes we need more welders than bogus liberal arts majors, those pinheads who waste their time writing essays about Chaucer. First, I would never impugn the value of welders, who play a key role in society. Without them, the University of Georgia could never have been built, nor could bridges and other essential infrastructural elements of an industrial society. My hard hat is off to them and their important work.

Morici’s patronizing contempt for the liberal arts comes across to me as rather ignorant, however. Here’s what I got from being an English major who wrote papers on Chaucer: I learned how to recognize and critique hypocrisy and foolhardiness. English majors engage with literature that comments on the human condition, often illuminating the folly of society and its institutions, and use the tool of writing to construct their understanding of the role of the arts in symbolizing humanity’s struggle for meaning.

I imagine that if he were writing today, Chaucer would draw on a lot more material from economists than he would from those working men and women who sacrifice much to slug their way through community colleges amidst the challenges of inequitable economic conditions. Professor Morici claims it’s their lack of character that makes life such a struggle for them, rather than the economic system that places infinite barriers in their way.

No wonder Dr. Morici wants the liberal arts shut down: It’s where we learn to recognize BS for what it is.


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About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.