Donald Poochigian, Grand Forks, column: Board abandons liberal education's traditional goal
By Donald Poochigian GRAND FORKS -- There is a disturbing undercurrent in the seemingly benign column by Jon Backes, president of the North Dakota Board of Higher Education ("'Affordable, high-quality higher education,'" Page D3, Sept. 5). Remini...
By Donald Poochigian
GRAND FORKS -- There is a disturbing undercurrent in the seemingly benign column by Jon Backes, president of the North Dakota Board of Higher Education ("'Affordable, high-quality higher education,'" Page D3, Sept. 5).
Reminiscent is the 1955 comment by Charles Wilson, chairman and CEO of General Motors, "What is good for General Motors is good for America."
Backes references "educated human capital," "breadth of career choices," "unleashing the 11 university system colleges and universities to act more entrepreneurially to enhance and diversify North Dakota's economy" and "better connections between the campuses and the private sector [so that] the campuses now are more responsive to work force needs."
Summarizing the vision that he presents as bringing to the North Dakota Board of Higher Education, he writes, "North Dakota needs a highly educated work force. Our economic well-being demands it, and our future will depend upon it."
Thus it is that Backes is concerned with "human capital," not human beings.
But "capital" is defined -- and there are many definitions -- as an instrumentally valuable means, not an intrinsically valuable end. Thus, Backes views students not as human beings who are valuable in themselves, but as "human capital" who are not valuable in themselves.
A student appears valuable only insofar as he or she is serving "the private sector."
If so, then Backes wants the public higher education system to serve private interest, not public interest. Perhaps trying to make this more palatable, Backes appears to presume the public is only benefitted by "the private sector."
Thus it is that the objective of the North Dakota University System is "educated human capital," not educated democratic citizens.
Indeed, neither the word "democracy" nor any of its cognates appears in Backes' column, just as "human beings" does not appear and "democratic citizens" does not appear.
During my lifetime, public education was invariably explained as training for democratic citizenship. Apparently, Backes has abandoned this objective.
This engenders puzzlement. A representative of a democratic institution -- the North Dakota Board of Higher Education -- does not view preparation for democratic citizenship as a defining purpose of his democratic institution. Rather than the private being in service to the public, the public is in service to the private.
Such a vision more resembles a feudal than a democratic order. Being so, one should wonder what Backes' vision upon which "our future will" depend will be like.
Are students to be "educated" to follow, not lead? Is the liberal education preparing the ruling citizen to be abandoned for the vocational education preparing the obeying employee?
Something is chillingly sinister about Backes' "happy" column.
Poochigian is a professor of philosophy at UND.