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Reject ‘Joe Six-Pack’ in favor of truly well-educated leaders

SHARE Reject ‘Joe Six-Pack’ in favor of truly well-educated leaders

Last week, the Utah higher education faculty and administrators came together at "The Educated Person's Conference" to discuss how best to educate Utah students. This event, coupled with the recent national elections, led me to reflect on the importance of society rejecting "Joe Six-Pack" in favor of truly well-educated leaders.

The recent presidential campaign was filled with subtle and not-so-subtle attacks on liberal education. In the early stages of the campaign, candidates with advance degrees from Ivy League schools were referred to as "elitist." Bowling skills, or lack of them, captured the public eye. Litmus tests on religious beliefs and who your minister was dominated the news.

Toward the end of the campaign, Joe Wurzelbacher, better known as Joe the Plumber, became a celebrity, espousing his views on any number of issues. The press gave him far more coverage than any professor of public policy could achieve. One candidate even suggested that he would bring Joe the Plumber to Washington as an adviser!

The selection of vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin added to the appeal for populist votes. Being a hockey mom became a valued characteristic of future leaders. Living close to a foreign country earned points for being knowledgeable about international affairs.

At times in the campaign, it seemed like there was a strong anti-intellectual bias among voters. In the end, college educated voters, even those earning more than $250,000 per year voted for Sen. Obama. I believe that part of this phenomenon was due to what seemed like an anti-intellectual nature of the opposition.

As a Republican and former state Senator, I am hopeful Republicans will push for an emphasis on programs and arguments that resonate with the better-educated. We need to focus on competition for good ideas, generated by educated people.

While not everyone with a college degree exemplifies the best traits of an educated person, it is not a bad surrogate. We know that individuals with college education will earn twice as much as a person with a high school diploma. In fact, our state-tax revenue is heavily dependent on the number of college-educated adults. We also know college graduates vote more regularly, volunteer more, and are in better health. There are numerous societal payoffs for increasing the number of educated persons in Utah.

The definition of an educated person has been relatively stable over time. The consensus is that a truly educated person understands events in the basic history of the world and their inherent implications, including the role ideas play in driving change. Additionally, the educated person has learned and can apply specific skills related to his or her profession. This combination of "liberal arts" along with employment skills creates a truly "Renaissance man (or woman)" who feels comfortable any place in the world.

Increasingly, scholars are finding a union of the skills needed in the workforce with the basic liberal arts background. According to the American Association of Colleges and Universities employers are asking colleges for students with skills in science and technology, teamwork in diverse groups, the ability to solve problems and communication as the key variables for student success. The American College Testing Corp. in a study in 2006, found that the skills needed for successful careers and those needed for success in college are nearly identical. The National Governor's Association echoed that belief in its report on changes needed in career and technical education.

I believe the educated person is more vitally important today than at any time in the past. The shrinking world, the speed and volatility of our economy, high technology jobs, environmental issues and high technology health care all call for emphasizing the educated person.

I hope the political system will regain some balance and place greater emphasis on reasonable, well-thought analysis by educated people of the troubles we face. In Utah, we should celebrate and promote the value of the educated person and strive to increase their number and quality. That's what our conference was all about last week. It is why our faculty and students find our work so fulfilling.

William A. Sederburg is the Utah commissioner of higher education.