Opinionista Mfundo Radebe 12 June 2018

In defence of a liberal education for our unemployment crisis

There is value in what can be described as a liberal education – that which teaches young people to think analytically about complex issues and to articulate their thoughts in order to gain a consensus with society.

I solemnly agree that “the ever-rising number of unemployed and underemployed graduates is a ticking time bomb”. This is a view that was recently put forward in a Daily Maverick opinion piece by Saziso Matiwane.

Matiwane rightly points out that economic growth alone, without looking at the structural problems of the South African economy, will not eradicate inequality.

I agree, though I do believe he should perhaps add a caveat to acknowledge that economic growth does have some correlation to improved living standards. He then goes on to suggest that we should look at reforming the education system so that it produces graduates who are ready for the workplace and, again, any rational person would agree with him.

He then goes on to make a radical and, in my opinion, dangerous suggestion that “institutions of higher learning in our country should do away with qualifications that do not add value to the needs of the economy”. I am not particularly sure what that means anyway, but I will take it to be referring to the humanities, arts, and some social sciences. If I am correct then to that end, I disagree strongly.

There is a large contingent of policymakers and stalwarts of the sciences, technology, engineering, and mathematics who believe that it is through STEM-education, and it only, that we will survive the “digital revolution”. The figures would certainly point to South Africa needing to train more engineers and data-gurus, but I am not sure whether a one-size-fits-all, STEM-or-die approach is what we need right now.

There is value in what can be described as a liberal education — that which teaches young people to think analytically about complex issues and to articulate their thoughts in order to gain a consensus with society. Separate to being at the core of the philosophy of education, it makes sense practically too.

It has been proven several times that diversity of thought, which can be fostered in society by having a diversity of post-secondary education fields, allows businesses and organisations to do better. I am convinced that a start-up founded by a philosophy, English, engineering, and accounting major can do just as well as, if not better than, one with just engineering or accounting majors. This is not to say that accounting or engineering graduates are not creative — they bring with them a complex understanding of financial and physical restraints which the philosopher-poet may not have as clear an understanding of.

There is value in having graduates who can write well and who can argue and debate from fact, and not from fiction or hyperbole. There is many a Daily Maverick piece that I have had the pleasure of reading and highlighting the logical processes that make them unrealistic perhaps as national policy propositions or as defence of a political mishap. I thank my philosophy, African studies, and writing courses for that skill. This while I also believe I am still able to understand that, if the Zimbabwean economy is to grow to $100 billion under the rival-MDC in eight years, Zimbabwe’s GDP would have to grow at an average of close to 28% every year. No country has been able to do that. I thank my economics courses for that simple understanding.

I am pointing out here that it is possible to have a policy that would require graduates on all ends of the spectrum to be well-versed with all the essentials of what will make them employable and good citizens too.

To that end, rather than advocating for an eradication of humanities course, we might call for students in the humanities to be compelled to take about ten percent of their module-load in a STEM-field. Similarly, we could require all STEM candidates to take a writing classes.

This is where we can truly begin to look at how other countries are dealing with this timely debate. In the United States, the Ivy League universities (a consortium of eight universities tied together as an athletic conference, but referenced for their academic standards) plus Stanford and MIT still strongly champion the liberal arts. As a student at Harvard, for example, I am compelled to take 25% of my courses in general education — ranging from quantitative reasoning, the sciences, studies of the past, to expository writing.

I also think we need to have more honest conversations here about the state of education. The truth is the mismatch in our labour system also comes from too many young people entering higher education without a grasp of the core skills we would expect of university students.

After conversations with many CEOs and directors of South African companies, many listed on the JSE, I have come to understand that there is almost a fear that employers have when it comes to hiring South African graduates. Employers fear that the degree a job candidate has just will not speak to their capabilities (is that not a fault more of the training received and of having entered higher education with a sub-par analytical and reading level?) or that a job candidate will not work and there will be no recourse to letting them go after a fair process of review (is that not a fault of our labour regulations?)

As we carefully analyse the South African political economy with the hope of truly ending the triple plague of unemployment, inequality, and poverty, we must not be lazy. To find target areas that suit a specific narrative is very easy. More positively, we must be creative.

Rather than looking to destroy, let’s ask ourselves how we can enhance current options and recognise that there is value across the spectrum of education. This is why a liberal arts education has and still will stand the test of time. It is why people like Alibaba founder and billionaire Jack Ma have degrees in English.

It is why, during the wartime, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill when being prompted to cut funding to the arts and divert it to the war effort responded: “Then what are we fighting for?” DM

Mfundo Radebe is an undergraduate at Harvard University studying African Studies (Political Economy) and Economics. He is a writer for the Harvard Political Review and president at the Harvard African Students Association

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