Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The Stories We Tell Ourselves

Yesterday I had a chance to catch up with an old friend -- High School Friend on Wrong Ocean was doing an East Coast tour -- and I realized that, in our very different settings, we’re telling ourselves the same stories.

She teaches at a law school out there, when she isn’t doing other amazing things. We got to talking about teaching, and she made a comment that stuck with me.

“Do you ever feel guilty about preparing students for jobs that don’t exist? I do...”


It’s one of those uncomfortable questions for which you have a set of stock answers, but even after running through all of them, you’re still a little uneasy.

It’s a different question than the one I was trained to answer. Having gone to Snooty Liberal Arts College and majored in something not obviously employable, I was trained to answer the disbelieving “what are you going to do with that?” The subtext of the question was a belief that jobs exist in some fields and not others, so the responsible thing to do is to get a degree that will launch you into something employable. It’s the question the engineering major asks the art history major. The usual responses involved either subsequent schooling (law school, grad school) that would address employability -- yeah, I know, but we were sold the “great wave of retirements” line -- or something about soft skills. (Remember the movie Office Space? “Dammit, I have PEOPLE SKILLS!”)

I don’t hear that question as much anymore. My friend’s question hit home because it relied on a different, updated subtext. Now, the assumption is that jobs are scarce all over, especially for folks just breaking in. Whether they know it or not, students are all philosophy majors now. In the absence of reliable, legible paths to a good income, we’re left with skill-building and hope.

That’s more than nothing. Even in the law school at which she teaches -- a well-respected one -- my friend reports that many of her students have trouble putting a coherent argument together, especially in writing. I would have expected people with strong undergraduate records to have mastered that skill.

There’s a very real sense in which the loss of legibility in the economy argues for colleges to focus more on the skills developed through the liberal arts. I don’t know what the next hot thing will be, or what the major economic trends of the next decades will be. But I’m willing to bet that people who can handle ambiguity, communicate effectively, and synthesize coherent meaning out of disparate information will be in better shape than those who can’t. In the aggregate, they’ll be better able to adapt to change, to roll with the punches, and to add value that automation couldn’t.

But ‘in the aggregate’ is a tough sell. It’s just not as appealing as “get a degree in x and you’ll get a job that pays y.” “In the aggregate” leaves a lot of room for “gee, that shoulda worked...” A student might even learn to appreciate the aggregate, but that doesn’t change the fact that he needs a paycheck. And emotionally, it’s about as satisfying as probabilistic social science usually is.

The other story I tell myself is that economy isn’t our fault. That one doesn’t really satisfy, either.

My friend’s question didn’t dissuade me -- or her -- but I couldn’t quite shake it. Wise and worldly readers, have you found a better story to tell yourself while sending a generation of students into the meat grinder?