Thursday, May 02, 2013



When I taught Intro to American Government, I remember being struck at how many students considered politics a spectator sport. At Rutgers, a small number of students seemed to feel entitled to take positions, but at DeVry and the community college, almost none did. To the extent that they noticed politics at all, it was with a vague rooting interest. But they had no sense that they, themselves, had a role to play in it. After a while, I started defining success as helping students figure out that they could matter in the process if they chose to.

Yesterday I had a chance to talk with some folks from the National Association for Community College Entrepreneurship, who made much the same point about the workplace. In their experience, employers' requests for new graduates often include something like “an entrepreneurial approach.” What they seem to mean by that is similar to what I tried to inculcate in poli sci: a sense of the big picture, and of their own relevance within it. They want employees who will figure out what needs to be done, and who are willing to step up to make a mark, as opposed to employees who wait to be told what to do, or who shrug off issues with “not my problem.”

It's easy to take a cynical reading of that, but in some ways, cynicism misses the point. Yes, there's an obvious material motive for wanting employees who figure out new ways to add value: replace “add value” with “make money” and you've pretty much got it. But it's also true that people like to see value in what they do, and like to be engaged in their work. It's hard to feel that way when you're working around a grudging, passive lump.

Much of the discussion of “workforce readiness” deals either with technical skills or with “soft skills,” such as communication and teamwork. But there's also something like “posture,” or the position one takes towards the world, that matters a great deal. I'm just not sure how to teach it.

To see it in action, hang around an elite college sometime. I remember being stunned, when I arrived at Williams from my public high school, at the level of assumed entitlement among many of the students. They came from wealth, their friends came from wealth, and they assumed – largely correctly – that they would continue the trend of being wealthy and important. Some wore it well, but I was struck repeatedly at how ungracious many of them were. Still, they took for granted that they were important, and that they would continue to be. Sometimes that licensed some pretty boorish behavior, but at least they were convinced they mattered.

That sense of entitlement – which was, sometimes, too much of a good thing – at least created a setting in which real political debates didn't seem out of place. If I'm a possible future senator or major muckety-muck, then it's terribly important what I think. There's something at stake.

When that sense that “my opinion matters” isn't there, it's much harder to generate real engagement. That's true whether the question is about military drone strikes or how best to move the Fall collection.

In the early 90's, when my cohort was tagged as “slackers,” I remember thinking that to the extent there was any truth to it, it came from a really crappy job market. It's difficult to feel fully engaged in society when it tells you daily that your labor isn't necessary or doesn't matter. One of the blessings of social media, I think, is that it allows alternate routes to engagement and validation beyond the workplace. For folks whose workplace standing is either marginal or missing, that's huge.

Sometimes that sense of standing can come from unexpected places. I suspect that athletics is a source for many people; in college, I drew some sense of purchase on the world from my work at the radio station. (“440 watts of raw power!”) Some get it from church, some from community groups. And some just never really do.

Wise and worldly readers, have you seen or found or developed ways to help students who don't think they matter, figure out a way that they do? I don't just mean intellectually, but viscerally. Students who know they matter have a way of manifesting that in the world; this strikes me as, among other things, a social justice issue. If that also has an impact on employability, call that a bonus.

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