The Life of the Mind

As a liberal arts graduate, I may have some understanding of the discomfort a few faculty express in the recent State of the Union and Mayoral discussions regarding the role of preparing students for careers. If we pigeonhole students into career-oriented tracks, are we robbing them of the ability to participate fully in a civic society? Do we deprive them of engaging in hard, eternal questions that give meaning to life? I embarked on my own higher education with a belief that if I were educated to write lucidly, think critically, and approach problems from a variety of perspectives, I would be prepared for life. Isn’t it our responsibility to provide our students with those same opportunities?

Three things happened yesterday which provided me with new perspectives on our role in fostering “the life of the mind.”

In my afternoon President Forum, the participants – including advisers, tutors, faculty, and a student – engaged in a thoughtful discussion about our role in helping students choose pathways. The student, in particular, argued forcefully that it is our responsibility to help students navigate their future academic and career choices. She asked if we provide career diagnostic services (I had to check; we do) and simple guides for academic and career pathways (we don’t, although I am pushing for guides along the lines of the link to Valencia College) to help students who were starting out on ill-defined academic careers. We need to do a better job of both of these things. Once we do, our students will be better informed and prepared to pursue whatever path they choose. Professor Higgins volunteered work the Physical Sciences department has done in creating academic pathways for Chemistry. We need more of these efforts to help guide students. We owe them that.

I attended a dinner last night with a friend (who does not work for CCC) who has a successful, fulfilling job in public service. He was asking about reaction to the College to Careers push. I talked about the concerns I had read. He responded, “Well, I believed in the Life of the Mind while majoring in English at Stanford, but after ten hard years in the job market, I wish someone had talked to me about career options while I was in college.” One could argue that my friend’s academic preparation at Stanford University is exactly what led him to his current success. What I think he was saying, however, is that he would have appreciated more guidance, more realistic assessments of career options, and better information about how his academic choices would affect his eventual entry into the workforce.

Finally, Professor Matt Usner shared a success story from a former HWC student who has just graduated from law school and is preparing for the bar. These are the stories we need to celebrate – students who we prepared well to pursue their chosen path. It was this comment from the student, however, that crystallized for me the tension between the life of the mind and the push for career training:

Thank you for teaching me to think and write creatively. I used those skills to win more than twenty thousand dollars in scholarships and in a number of other ways I cannot begin to express in this email. Again, THANK YOU!

I believe we are here to provide our students with the education, training, and skills to participate in society as they choose. I don’t see how providing students with better information combined with better career education limits their options. Instead, it prepares them better to successfully pursue their chosen paths. The life of the mind is not incompatible with career education. As our recent law school grad demonstrates, there is economic value in achieving the educational ideal of thinking and writing creatively. We should welcome the attention and discussion regarding our role in College to Careers. It will enhance our ability to serve students, to offer them options, and to prepare them for life once they leave us.

Hannah Arendt, in her work “The Human Condition,” establishes a hierarchy of labor, work, and action to describe how people may participate in a civil society. Labor are those tasks people perform to survive; there is little active engagement of the mind in earning one’s daily bread. She holds up action as the ideal, where the life of the mind is engaged with society to enable a person to act freely, to help push society forward. Preparing students for a life of action is, in my view, entirely compatible with preparing them for careers. In fact, we serve our future engineers, educators, entrepreneurs better by equipping them to think critically and to engage in society. With the ascent of technology, we are seeing less demand for labor, and more demand for work and action. Talk to a CNC operator today – the amount of critical and analytical thinking required in manufacturing today far outstrips the purely labor component of manufacturing in the past.

Our responsibility to students is to educate them for their chosen path. Given the increasing complexity and competitiveness of today’s global economy, we cannot be passive observers of their development. We not only need to engage these students in the classroom – which we do today well – but engage them outside of the classroom, to challenge and guide them on what their chosen paths will be. College to Careers gives us another arrow in our quiver. It will not be for all of our students, but it will serve those students looking for entry into specific career paths well. At the same time, we will continue educating students on the path toward action and the life of the mind. This is not cognitive dissonance; it is the fulfillment of our mission, meeting each student where she or he is, and guiding her or him toward a more fulfilling, successful future.

Published by Don Laackman

Leader with non-profit, higher education, and private-sector consulting experience.

4 thoughts on “The Life of the Mind

  1. Hi, Don. As always I appreciate the quality of thought (Hannah Arendt!) and writing that I find in your posts, and I think I understand the position you’re putting forth here (isn’t the corporate speak formulation something like “It’s not either-or, it’s both-and!” or something like that?). I’d be interested in discussing some parts of it (e.g., “Our responsibility to students is to educate them for their chosen path”; feminist and Marxist and post colonial philosophers (and others) have a lot of interesting things to say about distorted preferences that would problematize that particular sentence), but that’s likely better saved for another day. In general, though, I think most of us would agree with most of what you wrote.

    For now, I think the most pressing question remains what will this look like at our colleges? We’d collectively, I think, be all for “another arrow in the quiver,” but the Mayor’s words make it sound like (to stretch the military metaphor), six platoons of archers are being repurposed to moat-digging, sand-bagging, wall-guarding, etc.More literally, what will Malcolm X’s class offerings look like in a year? What are we talking about? College credit classes? General Education Core Curriculum and health industry related? Health industry related only? Speech? Economics? What about this curriculum redesign? What does that phrase mean in the mouth of the Mayor? As I’m sure you’ve discovered, that’s an immediate hackle raiser with faculty, but it can mean many things: new courses to offer in addition to existing ones; new courses as replacements; new certificate programs; new degree programs; new configurations of offerings related to all of the above. Do Malcolm X and Olive Harvey still offer transfer classes? Do they still offer AA degrees while scaling back or reconfiguing other programs? Surely you can see how a yes to that question would clarify a lot of things for us that aren’t yet specified (as would a no).

    And I’ll understand if you were to say, “I don’t know what it will look like because it’s going to be developed in partnerships,” but I’ll consider that a bit of a cop out since, certainly, SOMEone has a vision for what this operation will bring about and the longer we go without hearing some details about the proposed vision, the worse the speculations will get.


  2. “Our responsibility to students is to educate them for their chosen path.”

    I’d like to know if our CCC administration, or reinvention team members, have data that shows the percentage of students with successful careers in the major they declared when entering college. I triple dog dare them to produce these numbers.
    Let me make it easier. I double dare CCC to produce date showing how many times a student changed majors before achieving a successful career.
    Let me simplify that just a tad. I dare CCC to critically think about this post and respond in some way.

    My point is this: We are a community college and the secret to our success has been and should continue to be giving students the opportunity to take different courses and change majors based on their changing interests. Yes, they should have an idea of what they want to study, but we are not a 4-year institution that locks them into one major and makes it difficult to change majors after one semester of study. Long live LIBERAL education, NOT vocational or corporate training, at all community colleges. God bless students who know what they want, and need, at an early age.
    Educating others was not my chosen path when I enrolled in my major years ago. However, taking courses at community colleges, WITHOUT completing a certificate or degree, has led to my success at HWC.

    To paraphrase and respectfully build on your statement, I believe we are here to provide our students with educational opportunities, not training, and critical thinking skills to unselfishly participate in an unpredictable society, based on their sound and moral judgment.

    College to Careers numbs the life of the mind. We should not let Rahm and his corporate buddies make us think otherwise.

    It’s complicated Don. I enjoyed reading your post. Thanks for reading my reply. I’m glad we can exchange ideas.

  3. Ok, Dave and Realist. I have been thinking about this a lot. I just want to put a couple things out there. I totally believe in a liberal arts education. Many, many student come to the Transfer Center, and we dialogue about what their majors will be and what are their long-term career goals. Many students plan on majoring in all kinds of things ranging from History, Philosophy, English, etc. When I ask them what they plan to do with those choices, many of them want to go on to Law School or continue on to some kind of Graduate Degree. I would say that Liberal Arts Students compose about 35% percent of the students that come to the Transfer Center.

    Then, there are many students who pick a major that in theory has a more immediate pay-off to work after getting their Bachelors. They pick Accounting, Education, Engineering, or Nursing. I would say that that group also makes up about 45% of the students that use the Transfer Center. That group has steadily been growing during the four+ years that I have been advising students.

    Finally, there is the remaining 20% of students (I am guessing on the actual percentages!). These students want to make money yesterday. You get it. Those students often choose to stay in the City Colleges to do things like Radiography, Nursing, Paralegal Studies, Accounting, or training to be an EMT to name a few. These students for whatever reason need to be making money, and they cannot wait for the long-term pay-offs of a liberal arts education. They have kids and family to support, bills, housing issues, or whatever. They are traditional and often non-traditional students with some serious responsibilities.

    Dave, I totally agree that we need clarification about the future of the City Colleges. Here is my take on the situation. The Liberal Arts Education (I hope) will still exist on every campus. One of the pillars of Reinvention is transfer. They are not going to do away with classes that contribute to transferring to our partner institutions. However, one of the pillars of reinvention is also careers. They will be giving students skills of economic value so that they will be able to work in this changing economy. What I imagine (Don, let me know if I am right) that College to Careers will mean is that each campus will offer students who want to work immediately the chance to do so such as in the case of working for CVS at Malcolm X. Each school will have big partnerships to let students study, make some money, and learn skills. This will appeal to the 20 percent that want to work and learn skills right now. It will NOT take away from the 80% that plan to transfer. That is my take. Also, this group is not purely vocational. While they are working, and getting an Associate in Applied Science, they may choose to continue on to get their Associate of Arts to one day transfer. That happens all of the time.

    I wanted to add one more thing. When I graduated from with my Bachelors in Secondary Education Spanish, I was offered the second job in the Chicago Public Schools for which I interviewed. It was so easy. I tell that story, because the students that we are teaching may not be able to find employment so easily. I have found that the ones who are “Employable” are the students who also work while they study, who have had internships, and who have actual skills that they have obtained usually by working. That being said, if students who have Liberal Arts Education want to find gainful employment, they need to spend their summers doing meaningful work.

    Dave and Realist, We are on the same page I believe. I just wanted you to look at this program from a more holistic point of view. Don, please give us all clarity as to what is in store. Having faculty and staff by-in is invaluable. Thanks for your time. Ellen Goldberg

  4. Once upon a time at a college known as ‘Loop College”(now HWC) programs included shorthand and typing,dental assisting,flower arranging, licensed practical nursing etc. These were offered so that students could be absorbed into the job market. Then came the age of information technology and those skill sets were outdated.. However, those students that enrolled in the programs to transfer into Liberal Arts and Sciences learned critical thinking,problem solving and literacy skills that allowed them to adapt to the brave new world on the horizon.
    Skill sets for jobs put limitations on our students while having a repertoire of courses that enable the student to read to comprehend,write to express thoughts well and to think on their feet and outside the box enabled them to go beyond just being a small cog in the wheel of society.
    Will we be reliving the past or learn from it?

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