Educated for – What?

In the next several weeks, colleges and universities across the country will be graduating seniors, sending them out into the world, no worse for wear, one hopes, but financially poorer and usually burdened with debt.  One might expect that, as a university professor, I would make an urgent appeal for President Biden to “forgive” those debts.  But this simply would allow colleges and universities to persist in their insatiable drive for greater wealth and prestige – their race for the top in tuition that runs in inverse proportion to their race for the bottom in academic quality. So I will not.

A question too rarely asked is what these students have gained for all this time and money.  Since increasing numbers of students come to college unprepared – unable to read, write, and do mathematics at a college level and lacking the maturity to devote themselves to a focused task – the results are spotty.  Some students shine as brightly as one could hope, something that has little to do with “grades” or “class ranking,” but with how much light dawns and wonder blossoms.  Others sleepwalk through their four years, largely untouched by the education for which they (their parents or the U.S. taxpayer) paid so dearly.

Employers often complain that colleges and universities are not preparing young people for jobs.  When some people in the Academy hear this complaint, they assume the answer would be “more business courses” or “more courses in the major,” both at the expense of “core courses” meant to foster a broad-based liberal arts education. This despite our experiences with “experts” with knowledge in one area – finance, climate, epidemiology – and little appreciation for other dimensions of reality.

This assumption is especially prevalent among the increasing numbers of university administrators, but it also finds support among some faculty in majors considered more financially profitable, such as in business schools and those in the STEM disciplines that serve the medical-industrial complex.

But this has become a ubiquitous tendency as more departments worry about their numbers, since they know faculty cuts will result and departments phased out if they don’t keep their numbers and their “profitability” up.  Thus departments continue their incessant struggles against other departments to keep their slice of an ever-decreasing pie, as the number of administrators and their ever-larger staffs eat up ever-larger pieces of that pie.

For my part, I interpret the complaint from employers rather differently.  If I thought that the goal of a college education was to prepare students for jobs – which I don’t – then we should require students to show up for classes every morning at 8:30 a.m. sharp in business attire and dock them for lateness.  We would demand that assignments get turned in on time and that they meet basic requirements for logic and literacy.

No “gentlemen’s Cs or Ds.”  Employers don’t give them.  They fire people who don’t show up on time, don’t take responsibility for their work, and don’t produce an adequate product.

*

We would see to it that students understand and respect people, in all their differences with all their imperfections.  We would insist they learn to work in groups with others without complaining about everyone else in the group.  We would teach them to consider the common good of the group and the institution rather than merely their own private benefit.

But we aren’t doing those things.  Somehow, “preparing students for jobs” always seems to mean more money for the things those with power, wealth, and prestige want.  Whether any of this is serving our students well is not something academia’s increasing number of busy-bee bureaucrats has time to consider, overwhelmed as they are with the unceasing demands of raising ever-increasing amounts of money, running ever-larger physical plants with greater amenities, “keeping up” with every innovation in the IT world, promoting ever-more glitzy “programs” and institutional “accomplishments” on social media, managing an ever-expanding institutional bureaucracy with ever more paperwork, and making sure the institution has shown itself in compliance with the latest fad ideology.

Now, as I said, I do not believe the goal of a college education is to prepare students for a job. In fact, several of my brightest students who have come back to college after working several years say that having a job is what prepared them for college. The goal of a college education should be to prepare students for life – a life of human flourishing, a life devoted to excellence and the appreciation of excellence in skills and crafts, a life dedicated to the practice of the intellectual and moral virtues, a life animated by the love of God and neighbor.

It’s not that I think we shouldn’t think seriously about “the world of work.”  I do.  In fact, in ostensibly preparing students for “jobs” – usually just “entry-level jobs” rather than a career made up of the many jobs for which they will need to re-train and re-educate themselves continually – we fail to prepare them for “work.”

For all its tremendous benefits, the weakness of the classical liberal arts tradition was that it arose in an era that demeaned the value of human work.  A liberal education, it was said, is not for “servile work.” That’s true in one sense, but false in another. What the Christian thinkers who adopted and adapted the liberal-arts tradition understood, however, is that we prepare ourselves to serve in our work.

“Through work,” wrote Pope Saint John Paul II in Laborem Exercens, “man must earn his daily bread and contribute to the continual advance of science and technology and, above all, to elevating unceasingly the cultural and moral level of the society within which he lives. . . .Thus work bears a particular mark of man and of humanity, the mark of a person operating within a community of persons.”

Helping students prepare themselves to serve in whatever vocation they choose would be “work” worth preparing them for.  But that’s not a job, an ideology, or a lifestyle.  That’s a life.

 

*Image: The Seven Virtues and the Seven Liberal Arts by the workshop of Francesco Pesellino, c. 1450 [Birmingham Museum of Art, Birmingham, AL]

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Randall Smith

Randall B. Smith is a Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas. He is the author of Reading the Sermons of Thomas Aquinas: A Guidebook for Beginners and Aquinas, Bonaventure, and the Scholastic Culture of Medieval Paris: Preaching, Prologues, and Biblical Commentary (2021). His website is: randallbsmith.com.

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