Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Sliding Toward Vocation?

One of the things I learned about the history of the academy from Robert Zimmer's speech (see this post). He quotes the Berlin model's objectives, the first of which was "to teach students to think, not simply to master a craft." Compare that to some statistics from a recent NY Times article "Making College 'Relevant'."
Consider the change captured in the annual survey by the University of California, Los Angeles, of more than 400,000 incoming freshmen. In 1971, 37 percent responded that it was essential or very important to be “very well-off financially,” while 73 percent said the same about “developing a meaningful philosophy of life.” In 2009, the values were nearly reversed: 78 percent identified wealth as a goal, while 48 percent were after a meaningful philosophy.
Of course, some of this must have to do with the economic malaise. From the article:
In Michigan, where the recession hit early and hard, universities are particularly focused on being relevant to the job market.
On the other hand, the democratization of higher education as an expectation for a white collar job rather than as an experience for elites would be expected to have this kind of effect. Given the time frame of the survey (1979 to 2009), the democratization argument fails, however, because the number of college grads has grown very slowly over that period (see this post for a graph). It would be interesting to see the year by year data from the survey to perhaps decipher the effect of economics on the results.

Whatever the causes, the effect is pressure on college curricula to rid itself of 'irrelevant' programs like classics and philosophy. This last is particularly ironic, considering how well philosophy majors actually do in their careers (I refer back to the WSJ article I've cited several times, here).

I have my own biases, which I'll declare here. I think it's not necessarily a bad thing to have a Malthusian weeding of content now and again. Given unlimited resources, academics naturally expands to create ever more esoteric disciplines. The test for real relevance is how a subject of study ultimately intersects with the universe outside of the world of academia. This need not be vocational. Philosophy has obvious and real applications.

The article quotes the AAC&U survey that led to the LEAP initiative as evidence that a freshman interest in vocational outcomes may be misplaced:
There’s evidence, though, that employers also don’t want students specializing too soon. The Association of American Colleges and Universities recently asked employers who hire at least 25 percent of their workforce from two- or four-year colleges what they want institutions to teach. The answers did not suggest a narrow focus. Instead, 89 percent said they wanted more emphasis on “the ability to effectively communicate orally and in writing,” 81 percent asked for better “critical thinking and analytical reasoning skills” and 70 percent were looking for “the ability to innovate and be creative.”
Notice that these skills are not particularly discipline-based. This suggests some strategies for institutions that are light on their feet:
  • Create a liberal arts curriculum that can allow any major to sell itself as preparation for the workforce
  • Infuse thinking and communication skills into the majors through a senior experience that assesses and amplifies them
  • Use alumni surveys to see what the effects are 5,10,15 years after graduation and use that information to improve and sell the programs
Perhaps it is the case that the market for freshmen is so consumer-oriented that they just want a shiny package that says "New and Improved!" "Get a Great Job!" "Make Lotsa Dough!", and comes in various colors and sizes with different brands like "Dolphin Psychologist" or "Business Consultant." Just like buying cereal at the grocery store. If this is the case, then one strategy to combat that is to wrap those marketing slogans around the institution itself and de-emphasize the majors. The easier and more cynical strategy is to play to the audience and try to create slick marketing for majors and let Darwinian evolution take over. Infomercials for your MBA program might be a good idea.

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