Monday, August 13, 2012

Higher education's impoverished talk about work

In my last post I suggested that higher education has failed to keep its talk (and action) about civic engagement up with the experience and needs of students.

We are similarly laggard in the way we talk about and treat work (I've made this point before).  On one level, this should be surprising, since a tremendous amount of public discussions in the past 5 years have been about the ability (or inability) of colleges to help students get better jobs.  But it is exactly that talk, done almost entirely by people who aren't students, that is the cause of our impoverished talk about work.

When you chat with students about work, this is what you hear:

1. Most of them are working, expect to work through college, and will then continue on in jobs, to be accompanied by periodic bursts of education while they are working.
2. Many of them are skeptical about the future of careers.  They aren't confident that their work lives will continue on a path, or that their jobs will build one on another to some sort of pinnacle of employment.
3. Their skepticism about careers frightens and frees them.  On the one hand, they fear that they will never be able to pay off student loans.  On the other hand, this means that they can select jobs that do not tie them down and that allow them to be creative.
4. Their hope, then, is that this work freedom will lead them to personal freedom.
5. Many hope that their freedom will help them to lead good lives, not lives of corruption and malfeasance, nor lives that are dominated by their jobs.

Put briefly, what students want, then, is not the sort of career guidance we give them (how to network, how to write a resume, how to interview, and access to big-name employers).  Parents want that.  What students want is work that has meaning.

Colleges and universities, especially secular ones, spend precious little time on making work meaningful.  Drop into your career center and you won't see workshops on vocation.  Go to an alumni event and you won't talk about right livelihood. Peruse campus jobs and you will see precious little about learning from work.  Look at the general education curriculum and you will see no guidance about how to think about work, in spite of the fact that we spend half of our waking lives doing it. Look at universities that explicitly serve working adults.  Lots of talk about job placement.  Little talk about the meaning of those jobs.

Again, as with civic engagement, it may be that students have moved well beyond us, and that they don't need our help to do this anymore.  But as with civic engagement, we are failing in our missions if we don't take work seriously. Learning from, through, and about work (or its analogue, discipline)  is, after all, the proper job of educational institutions.  If we aren't committed to it, then we aren't committed to our missions.

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