For some time I have been struggling with the problem of other minds. How, I wondered, can everyone have access to the same information and come to completely different conclusions?
When I left the house just to walk the dog in early 2020, other people were shouting in the crowd and claiming that a brand new virus was no worse than the seasonal flu. Some friends don’t believe me when I say that Cheez-Its form the basis of a healthy food pyramid. There are people who choose to have cats as pets. Go figure.
In 2016, all my friends woke up on November 9 to a stupor that just happened and lasted for years. How could we miss this?
Easy. We were so attached to our own beliefs and worldviews that we refused to consider that anyone, especially a near majority of our fellow citizens, could have different ideas and values. We had done what humans do: bury our heads in the sand, to our personal horror and likely downfall of the republic.
Time and time again I am confused by other minds, even those of people who share most of my opinions. These days, my confusion often occurs in conversations with colleagues.
Many of them keep hammering on the same point: studying the humanities is good in itself. It is totally true. And it’s a strategic argument that won’t win anyone over.
Yes, I want students to read Plato, write poetry to nourish their souls, and learn to calculate how many angels can fit on the head of a pin. I also want them to be able to nourish their bodies. And to have health insurance.
This should not be one proposition or the other, despite the belief of many tradition-bound faculty members that preparing students for post-graduation careers is crude and inappropriate.
People in the humanities and social sciences can be as condescending and dismissive of their career-focused STEM colleagues as some politicians were from the “basket of deplorables” who backed a racist, sexist, and criminal presidential candidate. We ignore and sneer at our peril.
After researching a book for recent graduates looking for a job, I’ve come to believe that faculty members only need to make slight changes to teaching practices (although than larger adjustments to thinking) to do both: stay committed to their disciplines and help prepare students for careers. This is not a situation of choice.
Will he teach students lost paradise help them find a job? Sure. But not if we’re talking about instilling an ability to ‘think critically’, ‘analyze rigorously’ and ‘communicate effectively’. These meaningless words are thrown into discussions about general education goals and student learning outcomes. No employer – or really, no smart person – knows precisely what that looks like in real life.
But a student writing a cover letter to work at SpaceX who claims reading a 10,000-line poem written over 350 years ago and writing a 10-page article made them realize that Elon Musk is the modern incarnation of Milton’s Satan (“Space can create new worlds”) and that’s why they want to work for a visionary leader who could catch someone’s eye. recruiting need to see the details and love numbers Everything, they told me, can be quantified.
Obviously, I’m exaggerating. (And, if you have such a student, maybe explain nicely that Musk is not a tragic hero.) The thing is, no one wants to read a bunch of cookie-cutter cover letters and resumes that don’t tell them anything specific. Those who don’t learn to stand out from a group of graduates of the same background risk a fate in their parents’ basement. Most of us like people who are enthusiastic and passionate about something.
Why not encourage students to focus on topics that enlighten them and think about how we can help them prepare not only for enriched lives but also for careers?
Asking employers what they are looking for made me realize that it is in our power to convince students, their parents and state legislators that jobs await those who learn to present themselves well, regardless of the courses they have taken. But that’s only the case if we help students learn not only what we want to teach them, but also what they need to know to be successful once they leave our classes. It’s not a lot.
We need to stop thinking that getting a “good” liberal arts education and landing a “good” job are contradictory. This is simply not true, and this line of thinking will drive all institutions except the elite to extinction.
Remember to wake up on November 9, 2016. The world can change without your knowledge or approval. Higher education must evolve, whether you believe it or not, whether you like it or not.
It’s fine to point out that the study of philosophy, literature, art, and history is a worthy undertaking. But if that’s where your thinking stops, you might find that you’re declaiming those values while living in your parents’ basement. The sauce boat, friends, has left the station. Universities are cutting entire departments to survive. Yours could be next.
If you want to keep your professorship, put on your Darwin. Adapt, evolve or round your stomach.
Just as recent grads need to change their mindset to thinking they need to sell themselves to employers and they better present themselves as humble, hungry, and smart, you can keep teaching like you always have. . and realize that there are simple ways to help students translate what they have learned from you into specific skills.
Classroom experiences can count for resume items if conveyed correctly. Research techniques are valuable in job hunting. And every campus has resources, starting with career centers, that will help you understand the professional landscape. This is especially important if you never left college and had one of those “real” jobs that all of our students want (because ours aren’t options for them).
Now is the time for all of us to get on the schedule. Liberal arts values and career preparation. Both-and, not either-or.