The committee contemplating a strategic plan for our university system was asked an interesting question in their opening session: How much education does North Carolina need? Might we suggest that a more essential first question might be: What is the purpose of an education?
The website www.nceducate.com provides an answer. “The mission of North Carolina’s public schools, community colleges and universities is to graduate good citizens who have the skills needed in the marketplace and the ability to enjoy life,” it says. Perhaps a more thorough investigation might uncover some additions to this definition but this is a good point from which to start. So how much education does one need to be a good citizen, to have needed skills for the workplace and to live an enjoyable lifestyle?
From their earliest days in school our children are told they must get a college degree. Why? Because a college degree is essential to getting a good job that will sustain them and their families. Note the emphasis on getting a good job. Even as we take issue that this is the primary reason for getting a degree we also acknowledge a disconnect. The Census Bureau tells us only one out of three adults over 18 years of age have an undergraduate degree in North Carolina, so either educators aren’t doing their jobs, our people are not sufficiently motivated or two-thirds of our people don’t agree with the admonition.
We once had a plumber who had a law degree. He preferred plumbing, he said, because he could fish and hunt when he wanted and he earned enough to support a lifestyle he enjoyed. Admittedly, a person’s earnings over a lifetime are greatly enhanced by having graduated from college, but just as a good job doesn’t equate to a rewarding life neither is that rewarding life dependent on higher education.
What defines a good citizen? Certainly someone who obeys laws necessary to maintain order, who pays his or her taxes, is a good neighbor and who participates in the democratic process by voting is considered a good citizen. Education does not a good citizen make, even though it helps us understand the importance of citizenship.
Qualifying or quantifying the enjoyment of life is further problematic. For some the opera, theatre, art or other cultural amenities provide meaning, while others find sporting events, religious or civic activities, their friends or families enjoyable. Once again, education exposes us to cultural opportunities and possibilities but is no guarantee of enjoyment.
So the question of how much education North Carolina needs is unanswerable. Even if there are common threads there will likely be significant differences among our nine million people. The question misses the point. Education is not just important, but essential if our state is to progress and is just as valuable a public purpose as when our state became the first to open a public university. But it isn’t for everyone. We want each person to have as much education as he or she wants and is capable of attaining. The task for this strategic planning committee is to optimize access, ensure high quality and make education as affordable as possible. We wish the UNC planners well in their quest to make our good system even better.
— Tom Campbell is former assistant North Carolina State Treasurer and is creator/host of “NC SPIN,” a weekly statewide television discussion of North Carolina issues airing Sundays at 6:30 a.m. on WRAL-TV and at 8:30 a.m. on WRAZ-TV FOX50. He can be contacted at www.ncspin.com.