Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Should college be more than an exploratory playground?

This week's Yoder & Son column "Is It Too Soon to Think about a Career?" struck a nerve with me. In this weekly Wall Street Journal column, Steve Yoder and his son Isaac have intergenerational dialogues about financial issues. As Isaac heads off to college, he wonders whether he should already be thinking about a potential career path. His father balks as he wonders:

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.

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Blogger Maya Frost said...

Thanks so much for mentioning my book in this post!

And you're right: parents do need to look at college as more than just a playground that offers classes in a range of obscure but interesting topics.

Though I believe in the value of a liberal arts education (I have one of those myself), we must understand that it can be offered in ways that are much more relevant. Students can read about Masculinity in Japanese Fiction and Film on their own if they are interested in that topic. But a better choice would be something like "Frugality As A Sustainable and Satisfying Lifestyle" or "Solopreneurship 101: Basics For Starting Your Own Business" In fact, I'd say these ought to be required courses for graduation in any major.

There's a happy medium between college as a playground and college as vocational training, and we need to make sure grads take courses that spark their imagination AND inspire them to embrace practicality.

A potent mix of imagination and practicality is exactly what will allow them to seize their most thrilling and fulfilling opportunities in the 21st-century global economy.

8:25 AM  
Blogger adena said...

I must admit that I respectfully disagree, Amy. I think a liberal arts education opens a young person's mind. If you focus on job training too soon, you end up limiting the courses they can take, and limiting the great thoughts that they can think! If finances are the issue, families can choose less expensive schools so they won't rack up that $100-$200. State schools or community colleges are options. I can remember being 18, 19 and 20 and really having no clue about what I wanted to be...or about anything! But forcing me into choosing a career path probably wouldn't have been good either.

1:49 PM  
Blogger MojoMom said...

Hi Adena, I know there is lots of room for differing opinion here. My opinion isn't set in stone. I totally agree that it's not smart to go into debt to get an education, unless you have circumstances that dictate it for a specific reason.

I'd say get the best education you can afford. And liberal arts is valuable; I just hope students have enough life experience to take charge of their education, and when they pick a major, think about how they'll make a living. Can't say I would support my daughter majoring in French literature unless she planned on making France, French language, or literature, a significant part of her life! But maybe it would ignite a love for learning in her that would apply elsewhere, too.

I am conscious that my own story is something of a contradiction. I followed a highly specialized path for quite a long way before I realized I am a generalist at heart. And I value my education even though I am not using my Ph. D. in neuroscience the way that I planned. (I also did not incur debt along the way, thank goodness.)

1:57 PM  

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