Mount Holyoke College President Lynn Pasquerella, Clark President David Angel, faculty and students gathered in Dana Commons Oct. 18 to grapple with the issue of how liberal arts colleges are preparing students for lives of work.
The event, titled “Livelihood and Vocation,” was the third symposium in “Educating … for What?” — this semester’s Difficult Dialogues series examining the role of liberal education in the modern world.
Professors Kristina Wilson of the Department of Visual and Performing Arts and Tim Downs of the International Development, Community, and Environment Department moderated the discussion.
Angel noted that a liberal education should serve three purposes: prepare students to enter the world of work, to pursue meaningful lives, and to be engaged citizens. He said over the last 30 or 40 years the economy, and even the very nature of work, has undergone a fundamental structural shift. While liberal education continues to offer the best grounding for livelihood, liberal arts institutions “have been a little skittish in our willingness to respond to those changes as directly as I believe we should.”
Angel referred to the “Steve Jobs Conversation” being held on college campuses,; based on Jobs’ 2005 Stanford University commencement speech in which the cofounder of Apple advised the graduates to change their life paths if they discover that they are not pursuing their passion. The higher-education community needs to resolve the issues raised in the national conversation that places livelihood at the center of education, he said.
Pasquerella described colleges as “civic missions” where “we not only educate people to be free, but we free them to be educable by serving as a visible force in the lives of the most disenfranchised members of society.”
She agreed that liberal education remains the best preparation for any career.
“We’re in a time when the fastest-growing careers of today didn’t exist 20 years ago, and we have to anticipate that will be the case 20 years from now. So what are we training people for? Careers that don’t exist yet. This is the best opportunity to train them to think critically, to respond rapidly to changing technology … [and to] respond adequately to a world that is truly globally interdependent.”
Pasquerella said, however, that higher education is operating on an “unsustainable model.”
“We can’t continue to raise tuition and have burgeoning discount rates where we’re subsidizing education,” she said. Colleges and universities are continually seeking alternative revenue sources or offering programs to attract a broader range of students “who are really looking for a guarantee of economic advancement through vocationalism. I think that’s misguided in many ways. But we have to face the reality that we can’t continue to burden college students with enormous debt upon graduation with no reasonable chance of getting a job that’s going to help pay off those loans in a reasonable amount of time.”
“I’m more optimistic about the influence of liberal education in this country than the public discourse would lead us to believe.” — Clark President David Angel
Wilson said much of the current discussion about the value of college appears driven by fear, both on the part of students (and their parents) who are concerned about their job prospects, and on the part of colleges worried about sustaining their programs. “How do we turn that around?” she asked.
“I think we’ve been complicit in our own demise in that we haven’t done a good job articulating the value of liberal education,” Pasquerella said. For instance, it’s crucial to connect humanities scholarship with “the kinds of enduring questions and endeavors that people engage in on a daily basis.” Unless that connection is made “the humanities are in danger of collapsing into themselves. We can’t serve our own purposes. We have to be relevant in people’s lives.” And college, she said, can’t afford to be elitist about the vehicles for establishing those connections, whether its social media or even reality television.
Angel said the humanities are critical to informing the key aspects of student learning, including as a “protector of the meaningful life” where values and judgment are crucial components to decision-making. He argued that humanities also contribute the skills needed to “engage the big questions” besetting the modern world.
Downs harkened to John F. Kennedy’s inaugural speech when the president famously declared, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” How, Downs asked, are students being encouraged to act not just on behalf of their university, but of their community and their world?
“Part of our job is to model activities that show ways in which action can make a difference in the world,” Angel said, citing Clark’s work with the University Park Campus School. “Students, faculty and community members come together to demonstrate they can elevate the life experience and education opportunity for young people. Our responsibility is to multiply those examples and create an education experience that does not just imagine those results, but engages and empowers college graduates and ourselves to affect outcomes.”
One attendee questioned what constitutes a truly integrative educational experience, citing St. John’s College, where professors sometimes teach outside their areas of expertise. Angel said no one knows whether the St. John’s model is any better or any worse than the model of education at Clark. “What’s the metric? How do you make those decisions? … This is a moment when we have the opportunity to think carefully about the design of education. One of the real challenges is knowing whether any of the paths we might take actually serves those purposes or not.”
Much of the conversation among students and faculty at the symposium centered on the pursuit of intellectual passion versus the practicality of steady employment.
Esther Jones, assistant professor of English, told the students in attendance that while she loves her work, her liberal education helped her become a well-rounded person. “There are other parts of my life that have been put to the side or been cultivated in smaller ways that continue to be part of my life,” she said, noting her passions for music and cooking. “There are points in your life when uncertainty will be there, but just because you choose a certain career doesn’t mean that will be the end of all other aspects of who you are.”
James Cordova, associate professor of psychology, said he’s concerned by the notion of colleges solely as places to train students for a vocation. “My worry is that we narrow ourselves too much to become job creators in response to the fear that’s out there, and in doing that we cut the heart out of what we love about what we do.”
The expense of attending college has become a burden for many students, said Gino DiIorio, professor of theater arts. “Is there a tipping point that changes the cost structure so that we’re not overwhelming these students?” he asked.
Pasquerella reiterated her earlier point that the current model is unsustainable and that new ways of delivering education must be seriously considered, including allowing students to complete their degrees in less time and offering online courses.
Angel said the current higher-education financial model has many dimensions — including the role of government and philanthropy — that are being tested, and the solution will incorporate those various dimensions.
A student in attendance said higher education seems paralyzed by its inability to commit to a single educational model. “How long is it before you say, ‘We’ve looked at all the models; [now] we’ve gotta go with one’?”
The nation’s colleges and universities must shape the agenda for higher education, otherwise “it will be shaped for us by the likes of the Spellings Commission and U.S. News & World Report,” Pasquerella said. “We have to be subversive in saying we’re going to define prestige in terms of capacity to transform people’s lives through economic empowerment.”
Concluded Angel: “I’m more optimistic about the influence of liberal education in this country than the public discourse would lead us to believe.”