Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Ther perils of professionalism

Here's the problem. He wants to switch majors, not because he didn't like what he was studying but because what he's studying isn't exactly what he likes. What he likes is writing, not fiddling with technology. Unusual these days.

Anyway, he and his mother are in my office (parents being parents these days) because he's wondering about changing majors--should it be English or Communications? "What should I major in?"--that's what he wants to know.

Piece of cake, right? If you want to write--if that's what you really, really, really want to do--then you learn best from those who do it. Read Shakespeare, Donne, Hawthorne, Poe, Eliot, Pound, Hemingway, Fitzgerald--and those are just the old white guys. Read people who write and write well. Major in English.

But I know from too many conversations just like this that that's not the advice they're looking for exactly; the goods they want me to deliver have much more to do with this kind of unstated question: "if I do major in English, where can I get a job, what the heck will I do?"

I've got a friend who's news director at a big local television station. She says she doesn't care all that much about technical skills; "if you can write," she tells my students, "I'll hire you." That's what I tell this student and his mom. "Look, if you can write, you can do anything, get any job you want."

But such a pledge rings a little hollow because the two of them--and so many these days--link a college education with a real, live profession. What they mean is "what specific job can I get when I graduate?"

And I can't blame them for feeling that way, really. When the costs of higher education run as high as they do these days, there's got to be some immediate bang for the buck. If a $100,000 sticker is the stick, what's the carrot? It's getting almost impossible to deliver the old answer--"well, listen son, you'll be a much better human being." Besides, there are tons of educated fools and jerks and probably even a few mass murderers. Take the una-bomber, for instance.

In this morning's Chronicle of Higher Education, Mark Bauerlein, who's always interesting, laments the story of the student from New York City who is suing her content deliverer, Monroe College, for damages because she hasn't gotten any job offers, just having stuck $72,000 into a Business Administration degree, specializing in information technology. On the job market, she ought to have been a slam dunk--that's what she was likely told when some professor advised her what to major in.

"It just isn't fair, she insists, and she suggests," Bauerlein writes, "that other students who've graduated and haven't found a job file suits of their own."

[Note to Admin: Duck.]

Higher education can't avoid being career-oriented today--it just can't. And that's going to leave all of us in it wide open for lawsuits. Why on earth would someone major in English (or history or art or sociology, or anything that doesn't have immediate professional application)? From a certain point of view, it makes no sense. It's plain lucky that old "liberal arts" colleges (something of a swear word these days to some) haven't all blown away or morphed into fancy tech schools with wondrous athletic programs.

Besides, there are those who say the writer of this blog post can write--so just exactly where did writing get me? Nowhere near six figures, that's for sure.

This suing student's case is "a lesson to teachers," Bauerlein writes. "Admissions and marketing offices have to do what they have to do." Professors, however, he says, "must address the careerism of undergraduates with an opposing ideal, namely, that of learning that doesn't have an immediate commercial value, knowledge that can't be placed on a resume, studying that may issue in nothing more than a thoughtful mind and a discriminating taste."

I think he's right, but it's a dang hard sell.

So here's the comprimise. I tell the student in my office that he's got another semester to decide. "Try an English course," I told him. "See if you like it."

Try an English course. Pull on Henry David Thoreau, as if he were a pair of baggy shorts or a Nike t-shirt. Try out Hawthorne--see if you like him. Check to see if Mark Twain turns your crank. If not, toss the whole mess of 'em and go with public relations.

Why do I come out of those meetings feeling comprimised?


Andrew said...

Interesting that the student was a Business Administration major and not a humanities major, as stereotype would suggest. At a time when bankers, stock brokers, real estate agents, and lawyers can't find jobs, might this be a good time to be an English major?

Makes me think of Daniel Pink's A WHOLE NEW MIND, where he argues that we're moving into a "Conceptual Age" in which right-brained thinkers will rule the world.

Meredith Morgan said...

I don't often feel grateful for going to college in the 1970's. Reading this post made me feel extremely grateful for the opportunity study what I loved (French literature) without any regard to whether or not I would ever make any money from it. I feel sorry for students who can't let themselves spend their college years pursuing random knowledge for the sheer joy of learning something new.