At a recent faculty development day, our forward-thinking administrators encouraged us to start connecting the content of our courses to the workforce. They used terms like “business model” and “entrepreneurship” in the same breath as “student success” and “graduation rates.” We were encouraged to emphasize in our courses the relevance of our subject matter to the workforce so that our students could more readily see how psychology, political science, art, and physical education courses could benefit them as America’s future employees. Essentially, the theme of the day was: “the business of education is business.”
I teach a developmental writing course that focuses on gender roles and identity in popular culture. Another colleague teaches a college composition class based on horror movies and monster theory. A third colleague teaches a course on food and culture. On the surface, it does not appear that any of these courses is “applicable” in the “real world.” Yet, I would argue that our courses benefit students more in the long run than do courses that focus strictly on making our students better employees.
When I was an undergrad, no one ever mentioned the workforce. There was an unspoken agreement that what you were learning in that course would benefit you in some capacity, regardless if it was something that seemed, on the surface, not immediately relevant to our future ambitions. My fellow students never asked the dreaded question that I hear so often in my classes now: “When am I really going to use this?”
Not once did I ever question why we were learning about physics in an English class (how would I ever have gotten through The Crying of Lot 49 without a lesson on entropy?). Not once did I ever ask why I was learning about Aristotle, Freud, Marx, Einstein, or Ben Franklin in an English class. Not once did I ever wonder why my Early British Lit professor spent more time teaching us British history than he did on poetry.
You know what would help our students become better employees? The ability to think critically, make connections, and, most importantly, to communicate those critical connections in an effective way. They will not be able to do any of these tasks if we continue to isolate our subjects and explain them only in terms of their monetary value. Part of being a good employee and, I would argue, a decent person in general is understanding how human beings and, more broadly, the world, operate.
When I was an academic advisor at Temple University, every fall when the freshmen came, I inevitably encountered the student who wanted to be a philosophy major but whose parents disagreed with that major choice and instead wanted the student to pursue something in business or science. The biggest claim: “There’s no money in philosophy.” To that sentiment, I gave my stock reply: “Study what you love, and study it WELL; the money will follow.” What I meant here was that most students who study philosophy are not going to become philosophers, nor are students who study sociology going to become sociologists. Even some of the most “applicable” majors, like psychology, for example, are not necessarily going to lead to a job in mental health professions. That’s not the point of the major or, more fully, the degree. The point of the degree is to study something that you care about or want to know more about, to acquire the requisite skills to not only understand that subject exclusively but also the way that subject connects to other subjects, and then later use those skills to get a job, which will be more possible for those who know stuff and can talk a good game.
We need to be honest with our students. Writing a good 5-paragraph essay is not going to land them a job, nor should I pretend that it will. However, the SKILLS involved in writing a good 5-paragraph essay – thoughtfulness, argumentation, organization, style, purpose, clarity, and conciseness – are what will help my students find and land a job. The more exposure that they get to these skills, the more their value as employees goes up.
Look, the bottom line is that good looks are probably the most important factor in getting and keeping a job in America. But, as I tell my students, if you’re not good looking, you need to be smart and funny. Smart and funny people are people who know at least a little bit about many different things and can make jokes that are based on references and connections to those different things they know about. So, at the end of the day, we instructors should not be trying to teach our students how our particular class will make them money or get them a job. Instead, we should be working across disciplines to encourage our students to understand the interrelatedness of all things, to connect – not divide – the content in each of their classes, and, most importantly, to get a sense of humor. They’re going to need it in this economy.