Should college be more than an exploratory playground?
Have I been giving Isaac bum guidance? I've never pressured him to think of college as vocational training. If anything, I've encouraged Isaac not to fixate on a career goal too early. "Study broadly," I told him as autumn approached. "That's the great gift of a liberal-arts campus."
Even as Steve contemplates the fun of choosing among classes such as "The City in Europe, 1100-1789" and "Masculinity in Modern Japanese Fiction and Film," he also begins to wonder:
Am I setting Isaac up for unrealistic expectations about what life holds after graduation? Karen and I will be spending well over $100,000 to send him to school in the midst of a high national unemployment rate. Should we expect Isaac to identify some plan for how he will recoup that investment in the job world?
Personally, I think we need to move beyond the era that viewed college as a liberal arts educational playground. I don't necessarily think that first-year students need to have a fixed career goal in mind, or even know for sure what they will major in, they should have a clue why they are there. Why pay $20,000 to $50,000 a year to grow up? Why not travel or work for a year or two before heading to college, earning money and perhaps even accumulating some academic credits along the way? These days it seems utterly crazy to go into debt to pay for a college education before you have a solid idea of what your educational goals are.
I was as green as they came my first year of college. My roommate had graduated from a Catholic girls' school in Providence, but she spent a year in India before starting college. As a result, she had much more of a clue about the world than I did. Back in the late 80's, though, you could graduate with any major and most likely find a job. But these days, a job is no longer a given. Grads need to have solid, practical skills and experience that will make them stand out as potential new hires.
I turned out just fine, finding a true interest in Neuroscience my sophomore year that led me to a grad-school scholarship. It does seem ironic now that here I am, living a writer's life, something many a liberal arts major could relate to. It turns out that there was no academic roadmap or ladder to predict the path I ultimately carved out for myself. Each step I made the best decision I could, and learned something valuable along the way. Importantly, I was also willing to make significant detours from a laid-out plan when necessary. I completed my Ph. D. in Neuroscience, followed my love for education to teach high school for three years, then channeled my teaching mojo into writing after my daughter arrived. I also discovered my entrepreneurial spirit so that I could create my own job, something I wish all undergrads would learn about, especially women. You could be a layer, a vet, or a farmer: you never know when you'll need to take your career into your own hands.
But even though I've seen for myself many different ways that life can work out just fine, I still worry about today's new college students, many of whom seem even more sheltered and inexperienced than I was. When the time comes, I am going to encourage my daughter to question the typical "4X4" academic ladder of 4 years of high school straight into 4 years of college. I've been truly inspired by Maya Frost's excellent new book, The New Global Student, that shows just how much you can accomplish (and how much money you can save) by exploring a whole variety of educational options, with an emphasis on international education.
She's been blogging on these issues, including "Grad School Won’t Turn Clueless Kids Into Self-Directed Adults" which takes a look at what happens after college graduation if students don't become internally motivated, directed and self-reliant. I am not saying that the Yoders are headed for this situation (Isaac sounds like a pretty smart guy) but I bet they'd be interested in reading what she has to say.
I know there is a lot of room for debate on these issues, and I'd love to hear your thoughts.