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Diane Roberts: Rick Scott’s higher education summit was missing one thing — educators

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Gov. Rick Scott recently convened a higher education summit. Minus the educators.

The Commissioner of Agriculture was there. The COO of defense contractor Northrup Grumman was there. The head of the state Dept. of Economic Opportunism was there. So was the state university system chancellor, the Senate president, assorted business types and three head football coaches.

But no professors. No teachers.

That’s like having a confab on space travel and inviting only NASA’s senior accountant, the cafeteria manager at Johnson Space Center, and some guys who went to a Star Trek convention one time.

People who have opinions, but little expertise.

Maybe Scott left faculty off the guest list because we’re unionized. Scott’s not keen on workers’ rights. Indeed, one of his summiteers provided helpful tips on how to push “innovations (abolishing tenure, say, as the trustees have done at the State College of Florida, Manatee-Sarasota) over faculty opposition.

Or could it be because we profs are a bunch of pointy-headed intellectuals who know evolution is real, gender is a social construct, and CO2 is out of control?

You may recall the time Scott was shamed into meeting with scientists who carefully explained how climate change is damaging Florida, world-renowned experts with stacks of data on sea-level rise, ocean acidification, and other threats. The governor ignored everything they said.

If only us loser-profs made the kind of money the ball coaches make! Then maybe he’d listen.

Had any of us been at Scott’s summit, we would surely have pointed out the vacuity (it’s Latin, Governor, look it up) of his suggestion that funding be taken away from majors he doesn’t think contribute to the state’s “do-you-want-fries-with-that?” economy, his ill-informed demand that universities set education policy in accordance with what employers think they want, and his mania to keep Florida’s bargain-basement tuition rates low while demanding that Florida’s universities rise in the academic rankings.

I have a dog in this fight — maybe a whole pack of hounds. I’m an English professor. (Insert your own English professor jokes/insults here). I teach William Shakespeare, William Faulkner, Charlotte Brontë, Zora Neale Hurston — artists who expand our understanding of what it is to be human. I also teach students to communicate, to articulate the world.

Yet Scott and the worthies at his summit insist on seeing college as a place where you major in widgets so you can work in the widget factory. You should graduate in four years so you can get a job and start paying down that student debt.

Don’t take elective courses in subjects you’re passionate about — that merely slows down your entry into the taxpaying, property-buying world of work. Major in science or computing or accounting or math, not junk like the Humanities. It’s all about making money.

Except it isn’t. A college education should lead to a good job, yes. It should also allow people to feel fulfilled, to be creative. And by the way, the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce has shown that English majors have the same post-graduation employment rate as Computer Science majors. Turns out English majors don’t mostly go on to teach; they go on to become entrepreneurs, lawyers, marketing experts, editors, journalists, code writers, PR pros, restaurateurs, shop owners, farmers, even politicians.

Scott fundamentally misunderstands the purpose of a college education. It’s not vo-tech. There’s nothing wrong with vocational training. Indeed, we need more of it: The U.S. could use an apprenticeship system like they have in Germany. It’s just not what a university is supposed to do. But Scott’s vision of education is that you take some classes, ingest some facts, perform adequately in a quantifiable manner, acquire the mandatory number of credits, and get a degree which certifies you to become a useful cog in the American Profit Machine.

Get a job; make money; buy stuff. Buy more stuff.

That’s not education.

Education should expose people to ideas and points of view which force them out of their assumptions. Education should open up the world in every way — scientifically, mathematically, historically, psychologically, sociologically, aesthetically, artistically, politically, emotionally.

Education should teach you to think — think critically. Question authority, whether it be the so-called “liberal” orthodoxy of the university itself or capitalism or religion or whatever. Education should help you imagine what it’s like to be someone else, someone of a different color or from another country or a different social class or a different faith.

Education should not produce people unable to analyze issues past their own experiences and feelings. Not drones for the workforce.

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Diane Roberts’s latest book is “Tribal: College Football and the Secret Heart of America.” She teaches at Florida State University.

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