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.