Lt. Gov. Jenean Hampton
Lt. Gov. Jenean Hampton

Kentucky Lt. Gov. Jenean Hampton recently caused controversy during an interview with the editorial board of the Eastern Progress, the student newspaper at Eastern Kentucky University.

While explaining Gov. Matt Bevin’s plan to force state schools to compete against each other for already dwindling funding, Hampton, unprompted, offered some advice to incoming students: “I’ll tell you, if I was a student, I would be looking for degrees where people are looking for employees, that’s what. I would not be studying history unless you have a job lined up. Unless there’s somebody looking for a history major.”

That sparked harsh responses from former history majors, current history professors, newspaper reporters, and political cartoonists. Rightly so, because while engineering and business majors like our Lt. Governor may not realize it, majoring in history is not a career-killer.

History majors abound in every industry you can imagine. That’s because employers of all stripes value effective communication, information synthesis, and problem solving – all skills history majors master while in school. People who can speak, write and think effectively are highly sought across a wide spectrum of careers.

That’s why the vast majority of college graduates don’t work in a job that requires their particular major. The choice of a major is far less important than simply earning a degree. The idea that history students in particular are dooming themselves to unemployment is simply absurd, so further refutation is unnecessary. Hampton’s comments are problematic for bigger reasons.

We are already trapped in a dark age of educational austerity that will only get worse under our new governor. In our hell-bent obsession with cost-cutting, we’ve decided that universities are a burden we should only begrudgingly bear.

Don’t take it from me. Lt. Gov. Hampton made it clear during her interview. She pushed the idea that state universities should be made to compete against each other as if they are grocery stores or used car dealerships because revenue is scarce. To the victorious school goes the spoils of state funding – to the rest go further cuts. Victory in this collegiate Hunger Games will be determined by vague performance metrics likely more suited for an assembly line than a school. And this free market hocus pocus is supposed to somehow raise Kentucky up from the bottom of the national educational pile while magically driving tuition down.

The way Hampton sees it, this plot is justified because education is a privilege that is subject to political whim. According to her, “If you say college is a right, what you’re saying is somebody must provide that. The taxpayers must provide that. Those of us who go to work must give part of their earnings to put you through college, and I disagree with that.” 

Of course, many current college students actually work and pay taxes while enrolled. The “maker” versus “taker” dichotomy has always been a false one, whether referring to people on welfare or people trying to further their education. Even champions of austerity like Paul Ryan have abandoned this rhetoric. We all must rely on others at various stages of our lives, no matter how hard we work when we’re able.

Ironically – as always when it comes to the crusaders of austerity – Hampton admits she wasn’t totally self-reliant in college, either. Part of her education was funded by “a combination of grants and scholarships and later the GI Bill.” Every penny of support she received from those sources came from other people who contributed taxes or their own personal wealth so that she could pursue whatever major she preferred. The rest she paid for by working, which means she too was both Taxpayer and Student simultaneously.

college costRather than obsess over her hypocrisy, it’s more important to note what Hampton does consider a right rather than a privilege. “What I hear in my head when I hear something is a right, somebody has to provide that. Except for things like freedom. Well, you know, I’m not depending on you for my freedom. I’m not. God grants me that.”

This theocratic reference to freedom as a natural right granted from the sky ignores the fact that the freedom we enjoy in our society is provided partly by the unified work of all citizens to ensure collective security. Hampton surely knows this better than most – she served in the military.

But freedom requires more than just security. Education plays a critical role, too. “Education is the key to unlock the golden door of freedom,” George Washington Carver once said. More recently, in an excellent essay for Harper’s called Save Our Public Universities, Marilynne Robinson writes, “whether and how we educate people is still a direct reflection of the degree of freedom we expect them to have.” Indeed, “insofar as Western civilization has made a value of freeing the mind by giving it ability and resources, it has been a wondrous phenomenon.”

Perhaps if Hampton had spent more time studying history in college, she might recognize this.

A powerful, free society is one that makes education easily obtainable. Though it is noble for people to struggle and achieve that which is difficult, forcing them to do so when the reallocation of resources could alleviate their suffering is simply sadistic. Why force everyone to work full time through college or incur massive debt if everyone can work together to make college affordable for all?

We are pressuring students to avoid “wrong” majors for no good reason. Choosing a particular major is far less important than simply earning a degree. Rather than shaming history majors for daring to study that which interests them, we could be making college so affordable that no degree seems like a bad investment. If countries like Brazil and Germany can do it, the United States most certainly can. 

Of course, that’s not part of the austerity master plan embraced by our new governor. Government at all levels must be starved to death. So as long as Gov. Bevin and Lt. Gov. Hampton are in office, we can expect deeper cuts to our most valuable educational institutions, and the state as a whole will surely suffer. Sadly, it is true what they say: Those who don’t study history are doomed to repeat it.

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Joe Dunman
Joe Dunman is a Louisville, Kentucky attorney whose practice focuses on civil rights and employment law. He tweets @JoeDunman and blogs at www.joedunmanlaw.com.