The post at the end of the spring semester began with a lament about the many attempts to describe what the post-pandemic university will be like. Over the summer that tendency has sprouted into a cottage industry, and unfortunately, it is no more useful now than it was in May and June. As the great baseball player and philosopher Yogi Berra is purported to have said, the future is one of the hardest things to predict.
Que sera, sera, and we would be far better served by thinking about what it is we wish to accomplish in our teaching, and in education generally, regardless of the post-pandemic details. It is only then, assuming we can carve out opportunities to influence the future of higher education, that we will exert such influence toward justifiable ends, and that que sera will be something we value.
What the proper goals of higher education may be, and what features we would want higher education to possess in order to reach those goals, are quite obviously massive questions. For our purposes, we may narrow the focus to one point. It is frequently asserted that colleges and universities should prepare their students for employment, and that when they complete their studies, they should be, in a particularly odious expression, job ready. Of course, there is nothing objectionable about being adequately prepared to earn a living, especially for the vast majority of us who do not control sufficient capital to possess a living from the start, and therefore need to earn one. Most of us need to work for a living, and not surprisingly, we would like to command sufficient remuneration for our efforts that the living we earn will be comfortable. And in any case, parents typically do not want their children living in the basement indefinitely. Fair enough.
The question, though, is whether this has anything to do with higher education. The question actually applies to education in general, but for our purposes we can restrict our considerations to higher education. The first point to notice, and it should give us pause, is that the people who command some measure of wealth, power, and social influence do not believe it. They often tell the rest of us that we should believe it, and they do so from positions of significance in government, industry, and education. From those positions of power and influence, they will tell us that students should study subjects that are useful, and by “useful” they mean subjects that will explicitly prepare students for future employment. Following this reasoning, such subjects as anything in the humanities, most of the social sciences, the basic sciences, and the arts generally, are frivolous and do not prepare a student for work. It would seem to follow that colleges and universities should not emphasize, or even offer, such subjects and fields of study.
The reason I say that the people who preach this sort of thing from their positions of power and social influence do not believe it themselves is that they send their own children to the best liberal arts colleges and universities where they study precisely these fields, or so it seems at a cursory glance. Something is not right here. The students in those universities are studying the highest achievements of humankind in history, literature, philosophy, physics, mathematics, painting, and the many other fields in and through which our forebears, and we for that matter, have tried to make sense of and manage our world and our experience. Everyone else, though, is supposed to be preparing ourselves for whatever job it is that we think we will want, or that some authorities have told us are valuable, or, worse yet, that employers tell us they need. Some students are being educated to understand their world, and the rest, the vast majority as it happens, are being trained to perform at the behest of employers.
That the movers and shakers prefer their children to be educated for understanding rather than to be trained to perform for employers is sufficient reason to think that there is something amiss in the call for higher education to prepare students for jobs. What is amiss is that some students are receiving an education appropriate to the possibilities and expectations of a genuinely human life, while the majority are being readied to be, in another particularly odious expression, human resources. In an effort to avoid begging the question, let us consider whether this situation is reasonable and acceptable. To do so, we may look at it from both the university and the student sides.
To put the point directly, no self-respecting college or university can seriously orient itself exclusively or even primarily to preparing students for jobs. If it were to do this, it would be abrogating the many other critical roles that higher education plays. Gone, in this case, would be higher education’s roles in basic research, in advancing understanding of the world and of experience, in promoting social justice, in helping students develop their intellectual and aesthetic capabilities, and in maintaining and advancing the legacy that is the history of human achievements, accomplishments, and failures. In short, when a university or college turns itself into a job training institute, it ceases to be an institution of higher education.
From the perspective of the impact on students, the effect of warping higher education into job training is as bad or worse. There is the obvious point that living and living well involve much more than how we earn a living. Of course, we do not all have the same tastes, or preferences, or skills, or talents, or aspirations. Some of us like to read more than others or derive satisfaction from writing more than others; some are talented athletes or musicians, and others not; some value a day in a museum, while others prefer to do something else. Regardless of those differences, we all, barring some basic disorder of the organism, have the capacities necessary to appreciate those aspects of our experience that enable us to manage our lives in meaningful and fulfilling ways; regardless of our differences, we can all benefit, in varying ways and to varying degrees, from the engagement that higher education affords us with the richness of the ongoing human attempt to understand ourselves. All of us, regardless of our differing backgrounds, aspirations, and futures, can take from our college and university experience whatever may enrich our experience and our lives.
When higher education is doing what it is capable of, it is precisely this sort of opportunity that it provides us. But when it consigns some of us, and it is typically the majority of us, to an experience that does little more than prepare us to be someone else’s “human resource”, it is in effect denying us access to the possibilities of novel sources of meaning and value. Higher education is not necessary for a meaningful and valuable life, of course, but when done properly it offers us material for meaning to which we would otherwise be unlikely to be systematically exposed. The travesty of education for job readiness is that it denies our students the systematic exposure to this material and the opportunities for meaning that it can engender.
There is no good reason why any of us, regardless of our interests or abilities, should be denied this engagement if it is within a college or university’s capacity to provide it and a student’s inclination to accept it. All of us are equally capable of benefitting from a proper higher education, and thereby equally entitled to the opportunity to receive one if we so choose. To provide a quality education to the sons and daughters of the great and the good, and merely training for a job to everyone else, is to contribute to a deepening inequity that is inimical to a free and defensible society.
Please consider this, then, a plea for a commitment to equity in the education we offer, no matter what the post-pandemic college or university looks like. We can provide the education that our children and our societies deserve online, or in person, or both. We are creative and talented enough to do that. We will fail, though, if we are not committed to equity as a fundamental value of education. And it has to be equity up, not a race to the bottom. With proper education, at all levels, anyone can develop the understanding and skills necessary simultaneously to earn a living and to live a life rich in a meaningful experience.