What education does Minnesota need?


When Steven Rosenstone, chancellor of Minnesota State Colleges and Universities, spoke last week at the Compass annual meeting, he could have been mistaken for a Chamber of Commerce representative. I don’t mean that as a compliment.

Rosenstone emphasized the need for “aligning academic programs with business needs” and for “a better understanding of the precise workforce needs that businesses in every sector face,” but did not mention anything positive about liberal education. The closest he came was noting that not everybody needs a Ph.D. in philosophy. I won’t argue with that, but there’s a lot of territory that lies somewhere in between doctoral degrees and job training programs. 

After noting that Minnesota’s investment in higher education has declined, Rosenstone talked about “productivity gains” that mean the cost of educating a college student is 10 percent lower. 

As the Strib’s Neil St. Anthony wrote, this “career academic is now all about business.” 

What was missing from his talk was any discussion of education’s value beyond workforce development. In fact, he barely mentioned anything at all about education as a good in itself, or about a liberal education — not just vocational training — as part of the mission of state colleges and universities.

Education is about more than transmission of work skills or fitting individuals to meet the needs of employers. We are also citizens, for example, and need the tools of citizenship, which include critical thinking and decision-making.

Education can help us give breadth and depth to our lives. We are human beings, with the capacity for artistic expression and appreciation, and one of the outcomes of a liberal education is opening some of those vistas to us. We live in relationship to other human beings, and a liberal education can help us to appreciate their diversity and our common and diverging histories.

I agree with much of what Chancellor Rosenstone said, including his statement that not every high school graduate needs a B.A., and that it’s important to focus on getting students into the programs they want and need. He said that, “Grades 11-14 need to be rethought, so we don’t lose students and so they get education they need for jobs we need filled.” Rather than forcing bored high schools students to put in “seat time,” he said, we should get them into college or vocational education as soon as they are ready. Those ideas sound right, too.

Perhaps Chancellor Rosenstone’s talk focused exclusively on business needs and employment because the theme of the Compass meeting was “Positioning Ourselves for Prosperity.” He is certainly right in warning about the growing skills gap, and the broken K-12 pipeline, with one-fourth of Minnesota students who enter high school failing to finish, and that number rising to more than half in communities of color. It is true that our declining state investment in higher education has placed a heavier burden on students and made higher education less accessible.

What I missed in his talk was a recognition that, while we are all workers, we all are also more than workers, and that education is more than work-training. We are mothers and fathers and friends and lovers and readers and thinkers and dreamers. Even as workers, we are more than cogs in an industrial machine. The work of writers and musicians and artists (and college professors) is real work. The work that women and men do in cooking, cleaning, and raising children is real work, too. A liberal education can give us tools that we can use in all of these dimensions of work and life. That is why we have music and art and physical education and history classes in elementary and high schools, as well as science and math and reading. A liberal education is not born in college, and it should not die there either.