Thursday, April 07, 2011

What’s In a Name?

A returning correspondent writes:

My state's community college system just got state money to offer job training. I assume this entails new classes, but it also influences the whole culture. My bosses are now asking me why my syllabus simply says "If you miss X number of classes you fail" instead of "In a workplace you are fired for not showing up... my classroom is the same, etc.". I don't like to play pretend that my classroom is a workplace, though it's clear that that's what my bosses would like. The power differentials are totally different between student and teacher vs. employee and employer. Money is going the wrong direction for one thing. And to blithely pretend apples are oranges just seems fruity to me.

That reminds me of a discussion I had years ago with a biologist. He made the argument -- true or not, I don’t know -- that many projects are funded in the name of a given disease, but have applicability across a wide range of diseases. Accordingly, savvy scientists know how to repackage what they’re doing according to the flavor of the month. It seemed to me somewhere between cynical and brilliant.

When I was at Proprietary U, nearly everything had to be presented in pre-employment terms. PU sold itself as education for employment, and it wanted a consistent message. It was a little annoying at first, but I figured out ways to make it work. Since my classes were in the gen ed side, which students generally enrolled there specifically to avoid, I’d get the “why do I have to take this class?” question almost every semester. The argument I found that usually worked was that the technical skills they were getting in their “major” classes would get them their first job, but the analysis and communication skills they developed with me would get them promoted. Management requires people who can see, and convey, more than just “how to.” If they ever wanted to get promoted above the help desk, they’d have to show that they could compete with all the liberal arts majors from Flagship State.

I’ve long held a pet peeve about people in academia generalizing about “industry” as if it were all the same. Different workplaces have different cultures. Some prize “face time,” and others allow you to work any sixty hours a week you want. Some define “communication skills” as the ability to simplify complexity; others define it as the ability to strike up a conversation with anyone, anywhere.

The common denominators tend not to be the kinds of things that folks in higher education like to think we teach. Yes, it’s important to show up when you’re supposed to, sober and clean, ready to work. But you shouldn’t need college to know that. You need to be able to navigate organizational politics well enough at least to stay out of trouble; higher ed can be helpful with that, but it’s neither necessary nor sufficient. You need a work ethic, but again, you shouldn’t need college for that. (If anything, I sometimes wonder if the party culture at some traditional colleges and universities is antithetical to developing a work ethic.)

Making matters worse, many of the skills that effective higher education helps to inculcate only show up indirectly and over time. It’s hard to show a one-to-one link between, say, a course on Elizabethan England and the ability to make sense out of ambiguity. I’m convinced that the link is there, based in part on the behavior of the wealthiest and most powerful in our society, but it’s difficult to prove. (Part of the reason that Academically Adrift got the reception it did, I think, is that it confirmed a suspicion among many of us that some students never quite get it. Interestingly, the liberal arts majors are the likeliest to get it.)

The question I’d love to pose to some of the folks who routinely bash the liberal arts in favor of more vocational majors would be why the colleges and universities that have the most elite clientele are so clearly focused on the liberal arts. Are the wealthy really that stupid? Or do they know something?

I’ve argued before that our largest ‘vocational’ major here is the liberal arts transfer major, and I believe that. Underfunded public colleges may have a hard time keeping up with the cutting edge of technology, but we can still do a damn good job of teaching literature, math, public speaking, history, and the rest of the fundamentals. Giving students that kind of grounding, the kind that gives them the skills to succeed in whatever comes next, is a form of job preparation in itself.

Wise and worldly readers, what do you think? Are the classic disciplines useful for developing job-relevant skills, or am I just chasing the disease of the week?