I'm teaching a class tonight on research ethics to our visiting students, so I don't need to be in early this morning. I took the opportunity to sleep in (7:30!!!), and now a little catching up.
How've you been? It's been too long, hasn't it?
School starts in less than two weeks — in fact, my first class is two weeks from tonight, with a second opening for another class the night after. Year One Seminar was one of those extended-orientation things, teaching new students about how to use the BAC e-mail and where the Learning Resource Center is and how to write a resume. It was actually run by Advising. But it was nominally an Arts & Sciences course, which was at the time my bailiwick as the Director of Liberal Studies, so I reclaimed it. Now it's a course about ideas. Why bother being an architect? What are your personal and professional responsibilities, and to whom? Why does it matter when you turn in your homework on clean, unwrinkled paper? What does all of that say about you and your values?
It's a fun course. And one of the reasons it's necessary is because so many of our students are what we call in higher ed "first-generation," with no prior family history of college. Often, college is thought by those students and their families as a way of ensuring employment prospects; it's equivalent to a truck-drivers' school or barber college, leading (they hope) toward a good job.
And in this current economy, who can blame anyone for aiming their work primarily toward getting a decent job? Ironically, though, it's often the skilled blue-collar jobs that can't be outsourced, because they have to be done locally. If your plumber has to physically be in your basement, then that's a job that Mitt and his pals can't send abroad. If you're driving a truck between Philadelphia and Charlotte, that's a job that will always be an American job. It's the architects who have to be afraid, given that they're competing with production firms in India who pay their CAD drafters a quarter of what we do.
College historically has had a different mission than job training. Given that only the sons of privileged families went to college, the learning was geared toward ideas. College was where you grappled with the big dilemmas of human history, where you read literature that presented confusing but crucial moral problems, where you started to understand that nature adheres to knowable physical laws that do not respond to mere human desire or hubris. These are things you must consider if you're going to be a successful mayor or secretary of state or international business leader (which, of course, was the birthright of those sons of privilege). These are the great problems of citizenship, and well-educated citizens consider them often.
Or did. Now college is primarily an individual consumer choice, an "investment" that needs to pay off in dollar terms. And with college debt growing (in parallel with public investment in higher education shrinking), a student graduating with a $60,000 loan balance has to believe that she or he will make that extra $500 a month that will allow repayment before age 40. Which is $500 a month that doesn't go into a nicer apartment, or into a reliable car, or into a wedding and honeymoon, or into the kid's school clothes. The average age of marriage in the US is now 28.7 for men and 26.5 for women, at least in part because early-adult economic security is so tenuous. (Both of those numbers are almost exactly six years older than they were 50 years ago, when the average woman married at 20 and average man at 22.)
And so I wonder what I'm doing sometimes as a college administrator. My salary is amortized across our students, each of whom in essence pays me $100 a year. Am I worth that to their future job prospects? Can I, or they, justify anything that doesn't convert to immediate salary? Who has time to consider the meanings of art and craft, the pleasures of learning, the nature of dialogue?
Our new curriculum, geared as it is toward the requirements of professional licensure, is crammed to the hatch with required courses, a high-speed sailing craft without many portholes fitted for looking around at the scenery. One of the great unspoken opportunities of traditional higher education was the change of major. A student took a course as a sophomore that changed the way she saw the world, and she recognized that art history or microbiology or mathematics was a more compelling way of thinking than the marketing major she started out in. Offering a significant amount of elective courses is one of the ways that college accomplishes its larger mission of helping students discover their own values. Now, we ask young people to predict at age 19 what career they want to join, when they typically have no real experience with what ANY career (other than their parents') has to offer, and to take on remarkable personal indebtedness in order to do that. It seems both unfair and unwise.
So that's how I'm doing this morning. Nora's in New York, dealing with the end of life as I consider the beginnings. Neither is comforting, but we take our responsibilities seriously, as must we all.