A University Can Merge Philosophy, Practicality
As I walked across the UNC-Chapel Hill campus last Thursday, headed from lunch in Lenoir Hall to my car in the Bell Tower parking deck, I paused at something I had never noticed before.
It was a simple, tasteful monument to novelist Thomas Wolfe, a 1920 Carolina grad. Carved on it was this passage from his masterpiece, "Look Homeward, Angel," published in 1929:
Remembering speechlessly we
seek the great forgotten language,
the lost lane-end into heaven,
a stone, a leaf, an unfound door.
I don't know what Mr. Wolfe studied after matriculating at Chapel Hill almost exactly a century ago, but his curriculum was presumably heavy on things like literature, art and history. In other words, you should pardon the expression, the liberal arts.
Who could have known at the time that this dreamy youth would himself go on in the next few years to produce some of America's greatest literature?
Here's the point I found myself pondering:
Suppose the university administration of his day had called student Thomas in and said something like: "Young man, why should we be paying to help you study all that pointy-headed intellectual stuff that has no employment future to it? You can either transfer into something practical, like veterinary school or engineering, or you can go pay to study that literary nonsense at some private school."
Yet those appeared to be the sentiments that our newly inaugurated governor, Pat McCrory, expressed last Tuesday when he appeared on Bill Bennett's radio program. I don't think he really meant it, and he and his staff have wisely done some backtracking since.
After aiming the obligatory dart at "the educational elite," McCrory said he has ordered his staff to draft legislation to change the funding of the state's colleges so it will be "not based upon how many butts in seats but how many of those butts can get jobs."
Among the butts that might need to be booted from state campuses, he made clear, are those that are engaging in elitist pursuits like - oh, gender studies.
"If you want to take gender studies, that's fine," McCrory said. "Go to a private school and take it. But I don't want to subsidize that if that's not going to get someone a job. Right now, I'm looking for engineers. I'm looking for technicians. I'm looking for mechanics."
Again, I prefer to believe that our governor, who seems a reasonable sort, got just a bit carried away in telling his listeners what he thought they wanted to hear.
Tom Ross, president of the university system, crafted a tactful reply to the governor. But the core of his message was dead on: "The University's value to North Carolina should not be measured by jobs filled alone."
He refrained from adding, as some others have: Vocational education? Isn't that what our splendid community college system is there for?
Ironically, McCrory graduated from Catawba College, where he studied political science and education. Catawba is located in Salisbury, where I lived for a number of years, and I can testify that it has a long record of emphasizing liberal arts, humanities, theater and such.
I don't think the governor really meant, as some say he did, that such studies should be reserved for students whose parents can afford to send them to expensive private schools (talk about elitism!). I am sure he knows in his heart of hearts that that would be unfaithful to the proud tradition of the legendary UNC system - whose motto, Lux libertas, translates roughly as "light is liberty."
That tradition has always been devoted to making the best and broadest and most intellectually stimulating education affordably available to the widest spectrum of the state's population.
If that education produces the indirect effect of landing the graduate a good job that serves the greater society - then the governor is right: So much the better. But surely that's not the sole object of a good university, which is to teach people to think.
Now, my head is not very pointy. I have a lowly bachelor's degree, and I have devoted most of my career to the profit-making newspaper business.
But as an English major, and one who was once lucky enough to spend a glorious year at Stanford University under a humanities fellowship, and who now has the privilege of teaching beginning journalism at Chapel Hill (where we are very career-oriented), I believe the university can manage to preserve academic freedom while merging practicality and philosophy in productive and creative ways.
Ideally, that will allow all students, in their many individually tailored ways, to pursue that "lost lane-end into heaven" for which Thomas Wolfe so eloquently longed.
Steve Bouser is opinion editor of The Pilot. Contact him at (910) 693-2470 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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