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Maybe I should be blogging about the end of DOMA or the Supreme Court’s awful blow to the universal franchise. But I’ve already said what I have to say about same-sex marriage, the tunnel-vision it has produced in lesbian and gay activism (because, let’s be real, bisexual and trans folks are not invited to the party), and the contemporary undermining of voting rights.

So instead, inspired by a piece I read recently in the Chronicle of Higher Education, I want to talk about the trouble with understanding college as a form of vocational education rather than an academic project.

One of my pet peeves is rise of administrative language that we need to teach undergraduates things that are “useful”—“real world” “skills” that will supposedly get them jobs.

And, to be sure, there are jobs where you need specific training in that field to do them—electricians as much as doctors or lawyers. Vocational training is valuable, and should not be treated as substandard or what people do who aren’t intelligent the way it currently is. Electricians and plumbers should get the same respect as doctors and lawyers.

But the value of a four-year undergraduate degree is something different. It’s a time to learn how to think (not what to think, despite what the one cranky conservative student inevitably in my class each semester seems to believe), how to ask questions, how to assess evidence and make arguments and write. This is the “liberal arts”-type model, but I’d suggest that it’s the intellectual capacity cultivated by any undergraduate degree that doesn’t share its name with a profession. (And, I suppose, some that do, like journalism.)

And it turns out that the Chronicle piece, based on surveying employers, shows that the latter type of capacity is exactly what they want.

“93 percent of the employers surveyed said that ‘a demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems is more important than [a candidate’s] undergraduate major.’ They were not saying that a student’s major does not matter, but that, overwhelmingly, the thinking, problem-solving, and communication skills a job candidate has acquired in college are more important than the specific field in which the applicant earned a degree.”

“More than 75 percent of employers say they want more emphasis on five key areas, including critical thinking, complex problem-solving, written and oral communication, and applied knowledge in real-world settings.”

I have been arguing for years that critical thinking and related skills are what make people good employees (one example), so I have to say that I’m glad to have my previous argument validated and to have some ammunition the next time someone tries to make the skills argument.

And, just as more proof, I happened (coincidentally enough) to be talking with a friend from undergrad about how my job as an academic is like or unlike her job at a major Internet company just as I was starting this blog and Lo, and Behold! Her job requires her to be able to write and argue a position!

To propose a new idea at her workplace, they have to write a paper that lays out the suggestion and provides evidence to back it up. She says, “as a liberal arts graduate, I’ve been in heaven”; she likes doing this writing, she’s been trained for it, and she’s good at it where some of her colleagues shy away from having to stand up to the “intellectual rigor” it requires. This is what she does, and the skills she needs, in a job in corporate America.

What this means is that when we treat college as an extension of high school, as learning “facts” to be regurgitated on multiple choice tests, we’re selling our students short. The survey said that employers felt “college graduates were most lacking in ‘written and oral communication skills, adaptability and managing multiple priorities, and making decisions and problem-solving.’”

It means that when we teach our students how use a particular software or do a particular business procedure, we’re selling them short by setting them up for their first job (maybe, if the instructor’s knowledge isn’t out of date) but giving them no tools for the next job or the one after. As the Chronicle piece put it, employers “want a student who has learned how to learn and how to adapt flexibly to rapidly changing demands.”

And I think the survey reported in the Chronicle piece is an important step forward, but it only helps readers of the Chronicle (so, faculty, grad students, some administrators) understand what employers really want.

Unless that is widely disseminated, we’re stuck grappling with what students think employers want, and the ways they choose their majors and course work and evaluate their classes on the basis of that. Then there’s what parents think employers want as they help their student choose those things and sometimes foot the bill.

Then there’s what the class of university administrators who are more administrator than educator think employers want and the requirements that come down the ladder as a result. Perhaps most crucially, there’s what legislatures think employers want, since they have a lot of financial control even as state funding for higher education is less of the budget than it has ever been.

If all of these stakeholders still think skills are where the jobs are, we’re going to be stuck.

I am likely to miss the next 2-3 weeks since I’ll be traveling and using my limited work time to keep up with my dissertation timeline rather than blogging. See you in August!

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