Jaws dropped in North Carolina and around the nation recently when Gov. "Mayor Pat" McCrory talked about higher education on a radio show hosted by Bill Bennett, former Reagan education secretary, hypocritical moralizer and admitted gambling addict.
Their exchange was sadly revealing, as the two beneficiaries of liberal arts education bowed to their party's aggressive Know Nothing wing. McCrory and Bennett belittled liberal arts college curricula and mocked the idea of taxpayers footing the bill for such high-falutin' college courses as philosophy, gender studies and other egghead interests. Bennett, who has a Ph.D. in philosophy from a public college, asked McCrory, "How many Ph.D.'s in philosophy do I need to subsidize?" The governor agreed and then announced that he planned to change the way education money is given to N.C. universities and community colleges. From now on, McCrory proclaimed, subsidies would be geared toward classes that will "get someone a job" rather than, he implied, silly academic subjects popular with layabouts and weirdos. Newspapers in this state and elsewhere had a field day denouncing the governor's ideas, and educators fell into justifiable fits of apoplexy.
I was troubled by Gov. Babbitt's comments, but not exactly astonished. The public level of surprise at McCrory's comments was itself surprising, until I remembered that people outside Charlotte haven't seen Hizzoner at work before. McCrory has always subscribed to the right's idea that the main purpose of government is to promote commerce and increase business profits. For Pat and Friends, commerce is nothing less than the prism through which they view life and filter their politics. All other interests and worldviews — for instance, education, social justice, equality, ensuring a level playing field for all citizens — are but fleeting fancies and quirks of life to the right's commerce fetishists. What's more, McCrory has too often been appallingly incurious toward anything outside his own straitlaced, unimaginative experience, aka White FratBoy World. Local arts supporters still remember, often bitterly, the time in 2004 when then-Mayor McCrory made an ass of himself by "critiquing" some of the planned artworks for various light-rail transit stops. As usual, he gave off a bubble-entrapped yuppie-dullard vibe, simultaneously making fun of any artwork he didn't understand and coming across as a hopeless philistine.
What makes the governor's narrowly focused views so damaging, specifically on education funding, is that they're so utterly wrong in various ways. McCrory and his tea party-ish allies see education merely as job prep, not as possible groundwork for an active intellectual life or public involvement. And as the president of Macalester College, Brian Rosenberg, noted last week, a student's career path can't be predicted by her/his area of study anyway. Not to mention that no one can predict where the jobs will be in 10 or 20 years in any case. Moreover, today's most pressing American education/jobs deficiency — "STEM" graduates (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) — actually calls for more liberal arts, not less. Rosenberg points out that, per capita, liberal arts colleges send the most students into graduate training in the STEM disciplines. So to sum up simply, McCrory doesn't know what he's talking about.
It would be great if McCrory's nonsensical opinions regarding higher education were the only, or even the biggest, concern about his new administration in Raleigh. The distressing truth, however, is that many citizens of this state — at least the ones who aren't tea partiers, wealthy and/or white — are in for a rough ride.
I wrote recently that the best we could expect from a McCrory regime — an outfit that's loaded with GOP kingpin Art Pope and his sundry Pope-ists — would be for the formerly moderate Charlotte mayor to temper his party's angry, itchy rightwing extremists. Well, I'm choking on even that small slice of optimism now, as McCrory not only hasn't shown any interest in restraining the GOP's far-right crazies, he's quickly settled into the role of head cheerleader for the radical, short-sighted and destructive bills his legislative buddies are ramming through the General Assembly.
Again, it's going to be tough going with McCrory and his new far-right buddies in power, and this writer plans to keep a close eye on these limited-vision, business-subservient louts as they go about taking apart a state that was once the progressive pride of the South. No wonder Garrison Keillor called today's brand of Republicans, "Nihilists in golf pants." If only someone could slip some information onto McCrory's night table that might introduce him to another way of seeing things, maybe a primer on "Life Outside the Southern Business/Politics Matrix." It would do us all a lot of good.