SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

Opinion

February 16, 2013

Shribman: What is knowledge worth?

How did Barack Obama become, by Oscar Wilde’s definition, a cynic?

Last week, President Obama boasted in his State of the Union address that his administration was preparing tools so parents and students can “compare schools based on a simple criteria: where you can get the most bang for your educational buck.” Part of a national movement to quantify the return on investment students get from college, Obama’s “scorecard” will include information about the jobs and salaries of individual colleges’ alumni.

Obama never had a moment of vocational education until he went to Harvard Law as his trade school at the age of 27. But he apparently didn’t encounter Wilde’s definition of a cynic as someone who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.

For there could be no greater act of cynicism than to attach a monetary value to a college education. And by encouraging the notion that higher education is primarily about an economic payoff, the president is undermining a peculiarly American invention, the liberal arts degree.

In his heart, Obama, who read Nietzsche, Weber, Sartre and Tocqueville at Occidental College and Homer, Cicero and Virgil once he transferred to Columbia, must know that is true.

Every member of his Cabinet holds a liberal arts degree except Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric K. Shinseki, who graduated from West Point — but then went and got a master’s degree in English literature from Duke, which is not what you expect from a future chief of staff of the U.S. Army. Obama’s vice president double-majored in history and political science. Indeed, not one person close to the president went to college with the plausible notion of monetizing his degree.

Certainly not Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, valedictorian of her class at Santa Clara University, who got a degree in political science. Nor Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who holds a degree in sociology from Harvard. Nor Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., who majored in American history at Columbia. Nor Secretary of State John F. Kerry, who graduated from Yale in political science.

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