Education is more than sum of its parts

In politics, efficiency often overshadows value. Such was the case last week in the Minnesota House of Representatives. State Rep. Bill Kuisle, R-Rochester, introduced a bill that would reduce the number of state-subsidized credits available to University students. Under the bill, students would only qualify for state grants up to eight semesters. Current law allows 10. The legislation is characteristic of a political climate that sacrifices the quality of students’ education for expediency. While “accountability” is a worthy goal, it should not come at the expense of the years of learning and individual growth that are the college experience.

Politicians love buzzwords. When the subject is education, a favorite of conservatives is “accountability.” It appears to be the newest curse word in the St. Paul sandbox. In describing the legislation, Kuisle said it is aimed to “get students through the system and hold them accountable.” Gov. Tim Pawlenty echoes that language. His educational vision calls for “change and accountability to Minnesota’s education system.” It’s true: The University’s graduation rates are abysmal, among the worst in the Big Ten. And no one would argue that the state should pay for students to endlessly stay in school, forever changing majors. However, the value of exploring different fields of study and learning through trial and error is the essence of higher education and should not be discounted.

Education should not be reduced to a drudge factory. Many students enter college without a clear idea of what career path they’d like to follow. It’s an important decision, one that will have an impact on the rest of their lives. Some students, pushed by an artificial timeline such as Kuisle’s, graduate with majors they find useless. Another year spent searching for the right path in life can help them avoid this trap. After all, few 18-year-olds can divine what their 23-year-old selves will want out of a career.

Graduating in four years is not always feasible. Many students, particularly in tough economic times, work more than one job and don’t have enough time or money to take a full load of classes. Others are raising families. These are valuable students at the University, and they should not be squeezed out in the political push for “accountability.”

Education has innate value, not only in the completion but also in the process. Politicians need to understand this. Education is an intellectual exploration that opens opportunities unimaginable at the outset. To view education as only a means to an end is to turn the academy into a trade school. The state should embrace students who cultivate knowledge for knowledge’s sake, not spurn them. We are living in an increasingly knowledge-based society. That society is best served by a populace of curious, critical thinkers, not automatons.

In times of budget crisis, funds must be constricted. The University and its students have become familiar targets. However, to rush students through their education yields not the best result for all concerned. The students do not receive the education that will provide the foundation for their future selves. The state does not receive the enlightened, productive members it desires. Democracy does not receive its critical and diverse perspectives that sustain it. With the demise of education so goes the state of Minnesota and, ultimately, politicians will be the ones held accountable.