A couple of weeks ago, I watched the movie “Guys and Dolls.”
It triggered recollections from long ago. Thirty years ago I was a cast member in the University of Wisconsin-Baraboo stage production of “Guy and Dolls.” I didn’t land a lead role, but I was the emcee of the Hot Box Cafe, sang “Luck Be a Lady” as part of the chorus and delivered the drunkenly slurred line, “What vulgar jewelry!” (I’ll also note that UW-Baraboo’s Sky Masterston could carry a tune much better than Marlon Brando.)
Will UW-Baraboo students get that same opportunity 10, 20 or 30 years from now. After hearing Gov. Scott Walker, I’m not so sure.
Walker wants the University of Wisconsin to get down to business by linking UW funding to how well it serves the needs of the business community. He told a California audience last November:
“We shouldn't be paying for butts in seats; we should be paying for outcomes. In higher education, that means not only degrees but our young people getting degrees in the jobs that are actually open and needed today, not just the jobs the universities want to give us.”
The statement is misleading. Students already can pursue degrees demanded by the business community. Nobody is telling a prospective college student he or she can’t pursue degrees in engineering, accounting or business administration. I doubt there is a counselor anywhere in the UW system who’s pressuring a prospective applied science major to switch to English literature.
A principled conservative might question why business can’t train its own darned workers rather than expect a multi-billion dollar subsidy from the state. But that objection aside, Walker’s idea of the university as a business training center redefines the role of post-secondary education in America as it has existed the past 300 years.
The university is more than a simple training institute. It cultivates creativity. It encourages critical and humane thinking. It expands the mind’s horizon beyond how fast the next widget is made. Yet Walker seeks to take the state university system the opposite direction. He wants to financially reward UW campuses that deliver the training goods (“outcomes,” as he calls them). It creates a disincentive to fund music, drama, literature, sociology, philosophy, etc., particularly at a small campus like UW-Baraboo — or Wisconsin State Business Training Institute-Baraboo Affiliate, as it might be named by 2030.
Maybe this is alarmist, but it would help if the governor shared his views on liberal arts and where he believes pursuits like music, drama and physical education fit into our education system. Is there room for anything in the UW system that doesn’t directly lead to a better widget? If the governor believes the answer is yes, he hasn’t said so.
“Guys and Dolls” did little, if anything, to make me a better writer but it left me with wonderful memories and a better appreciation of the performance arts ... for whatever that’s worth. I hope the opportunities of music and theater are always open to UW students who seek to expand and enrich their academic experience. Based on everything I’ve heard the past three months, I’m not optimistic.
Steve Rundio is the editor of Tomah Newspapers.