Weekly Read April 6, 2015

An Open Letter to Governor Cuomo

Once again, the question of what it means to receive an education is at the center stage of our national conversation. This is a discussion of long standing and different audiences have arrived at different conclusions. Some see college as essentially job training (with a bit of English Lit thrown in to hold your own over lunch). Others see college as a place to study the liberal arts and not as preparation of a workforce.

It is clear which side of the debate the Governor comes down on when he states community colleges have failed in their mission to supply employers with students whose skill sets fit the corporate sector. He seems to see the purpose of higher education as primarily the preparation of students for jobs. The majority of Americans, I think, agree with him. I get it. We want our kids to be employable but this approach contains a false assumption Colleges focused on job training will not produce an employable population of kids. I know this sounds counterintuitive but my twenty years of experience as an educator supports this conclusion.

Focusing too heavily on job training negates the college experience. I encounter many students who think that school is meaningless and I think we have created this perception. Viewing education simply as a means to an end (a job) deprives education of its intrinsic value or meaning.

Another way to address this shift in our understanding of education’s purpose is by looking at the word itself. The word “education” means to “lead out from darkness.” As the word tells us, education has nothing to do with job training. Education is a discovery process where the student comes to understand his/her own idiocy. “Idiocy,” comes from the Greek word “idios,” which means “one’s own.” Education offers the idea that one learns how to enter the world with the ability to “see” from more than one perspective, not solely from one’s own point of view. “Training,” on the other hand, means to drag like a locomotive. There is nothing that fosters personal transformation or collective pluralism in training.

Aiming at something is frequently not the best way to achieve landing on it. Again, this is counterintuitive. Think, for example, about looking for one’s keys. You search high and low but no keys. Yet, once you stop looking for them they turn up. The same is true for finding one’s path in life. I’ve encountered many lost students whose aim in life is to get rich. If that’s all they seek it is unlikely to happen. Usually success comes to those who pursue something they love.

There are also the practical concerns regarding the ever-changing nature of the workplace. Many use this as an excuse to abandon the liberal arts. Yet, a liberal arts education teaches the student how to learn and if you know how to learn, you are employable. If you know how to teach yourself you are a highly desired employee because you save the employer valuable resources.

I never hear a distinction being made between job and work. “Work” is something you felt you were meant to do. It is what is meaningful to you. School can help a student discover his or her life’s work. A “job,” in contrast, is something one does to survive: to eat and pay the bills. Optimally our students will be able to earn a living by their work.  However, even when a person never earns a cent from his/her work but obtains enormous self-fulfillment from one’s work nonetheless. A true education will give this gift to our students.

The Governor’s comments concern me. I teach at a SUNY community college. I do not want to see my work changed. I do not want to see community colleges changed to being singularly concerned with workforce development.

I was not the best-prepared college student but thanks to my professors who taught me how to think it allowed me to change the course of my life. Having received a liberal education, I was able make the transition from school to the workplace.  I think it is a mistake when we think that our new world requires new world teaching.  I know that many will disagree with me.  It seems to me that the more things change, the more our educational system should stay true to its classical roots.

The SUNY motto must serve as our anchor: let each become all she/he is capable of becoming. That motto reminds me of the words of Goethe (1749-1832): “If we treat people as they are, we make them worse. If we treat people as they ought to be, we help them become what they are capable of becoming.”  The world looked very different when he wrote these words but this idea has fed me, informed me, and become my own personal mantra.

Everyday I am grateful that I had teachers who brought out my potential and I am honored to be able to have the opportunity to do the same for my students. My wish is that the Governor rethinks his words and rethinks what he believes our mission is as educators.


Janet Farrell Leontiou
Ph.D., Associate Professor of Communication Nassau Community College