Wisconsin, not Walker, has the bright idea on higher ed

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 Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker speaks at the winter meeting of the free market Club for Growth winter economic conference at the Breakers Hotel Saturday, Feb. 28, 2015, in Palm Beach, Fla.   (AP Photo/Joe Skipper)

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker speaks at the winter meeting of the free market Club for Growth winter economic conference at the Breakers Hotel Saturday, Feb. 28, 2015, in Palm Beach, Fla. (AP Photo/Joe Skipper)

Scott Walker had what he thought was a bright idea. It was this: Do away with the Wisconsin Idea. Now, one firestorm later, he’s backpedaling and trying to claim that was never his idea.

Scott Walker is the governor of Wisconsin. He has designs on the Republican nomination for president.

The Wisconsin Idea is one of those vague concepts that mean a lot to people who grew up with it — and is a little mysterious to those who didn’t. It’s clearly an outgrowth of the state’s rich progressive political tradition — which may be why Walker pooh-poohed it.

At its heart of the Idea is a sense of mission for the state’s universities, that their goal should be to produce a) people on fire to serve the public good and b) research that helps them figure out the best way to do that.

As part of his budget proposal, Walker proposed scrapping the Idea, with all its talk of service and the search for truth. In its place, he wanted this prime directive: “meet the state’s workforce needs.”

Then so many people, both Cheeseheads and outlanders, howled in outrage that Walker backed down, and threw some staffers under the bus.

What cheers me is how folks seemed to get so quickly that the primary goal of higher education should very definitely not be what Walker said, at least in the way he meant it.  

In college, I received that very old-fashioned thing: a liberal arts education. I confess I graduated with little clue what job I should do.  But I felt confident that the great teaching I’d received prepared me to be many things– including a good citizen of this Republic.

Within a year, I stumbled into the work I’ve loved ever since.

And not a single day has gone by in the newsrooms where I’ve worked when I have not drawn on habits of mind or specific learning I got from my “impractical” liberal arts eduation.

When I get a chance to talk to high school kids these day, I try to convey this message: Don’t dig in too deeply on any one career goal.  Don’t obsess about majors or first jobs out of college.

At your age, you have no way of knowing, what you’ll be doing in the world in five years, or what the world will be doing to you.

Narrow job skills just set you up to be the next generation’s buggy whip maker.

In an economy marked by constant disruptive innovation, the imperishable skills are a thirst for learning, a spirit at once curious and skeptical, a taste for nuance and complexity, and a hunger for collaborative effort.

In other words, the very skills that a liberal arts education instills — and that seem not be dreamt of in Scott Walker’s pedestrian philosophy.

 

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