Director’s Column: Education for Work: Allergies, Aspirations, and Realities

By David Scobey, Director, Bringing Theory to Practice

Many faculty have long been allergic to the idea that education for work is a guiding purpose of college. Not all, of course: in fields like engineering or journalism, teaching was always inseparable from career preparation. But in the arts and sciences, faculty have tended to resist the notion that it was our job to guide our students’ pursuit of work—unless their path led to graduate school or a few professions proximate to ours. As for the realities of student wage-earning—shelving books or waiting tables—these were even further from our minds.

I count myself among those who suffered from this allergy. Of course, I wanted my students to have the money they needed and to thrive in their careers. But there were other offices—student employment, career services—whose job it was to look after such needs.

Such thinking was wrong—for my students’ development and my own values. It was based on an unexamined hierarchy between the “liberal” and “practical” arts, freedom and toil, which reinforced precisely the instrumental view of work to which I was allergic. It kept alive an old elitism that hived labor off from life and the life of the mind, excluding it from purposes that college is meant to honor and nurture. Yet if poetry groups, voting booths, and community gardens are places where we envision our graduates thriving—places of creativity, curiosity, contestation, and collaboration—then surely their workplaces are too.

Happily, as this newsletter testifies, educators are starting to put aside this allergy and integrate work into their vision of college learning. Bates College (as described earlier in this issue) has earned admiration for its “Purposeful Work” initiative, which offers students curricular, cocurricular, and internship opportunities to explore and prepare for their work lives. The University of Iowa’s GROW Program (Guided Reflection on Work) treats campus employment as a high-impact practice, an opportunity for experiential learning and personal development. Many institutions are developing boot camps and minors that supplement liberal learning with the technical skills that one expert calls “the ‘last mile’ from diploma to employment.”[1] Conversely, many employers stress the value of problem-solving, critical thinking, collaboration, and communication skills—precisely the robot-proof capacities that a well-rounded college education offers—in a dynamic economy.

All of this points to an emerging consensus that education for work constitutes a core goal for all undergraduate learning, not simply vocational or preprofessional programs. That consensus views students’ exploration of work not only as a path to employment and economic security but also as a site of intellectual, social, and even emotional development. It represents a rebuke to the old elitism that exiled work from the goals of liberal education (and the related elitism that valued intellectual work above all other forms of labor). But it is equally a rebuke to the current instrumentalism that reduces “education for work” to “workforce training” and obeisance to the fickle dictates of the labor market.

To which I say, hooray. And yet, in a couple of ways, I’d like to add to this new consensus about education for work. On the one hand, its focus on personal exploration, personal reflection, and personal skill-building seems to me too exclusively . . . personal. I’d argue for adding in some systemic (but still practical) attention to the ways that the economy and the worlds of work are changing. How is globalization reshaping the labor market? How are AI and robotization ushering in changes, just over the horizon, that will wipe out some jobs, invent others, and transform still others? What does the rise of the gig economy, with its mix of creative and exploitive effects, portend for career trajectories? And how might political, policy, and labor struggles affect these realities? Such issues may seem abstract in the context of internships and boot camps, but they couldn’t be more salient to our students’ capacity to
pursue meaningful, secure, and satisfying work lives.

On the other hand, the emerging consensus seems too exclusively aspirational. My fondest hope is for all our students to find work that meets their sense of purpose and calling, that is well-respected and well-rewarded, throughout their work lives. But we know, and more importantly they know, that this won’t happen. Many will find careers that are disconnected from their personal or academic journey, whose very real satisfactions come from teamwork, job mastery, and providing for family. For many, jobs (especially first jobs) may be underpaid, under-respected, or just plain unavailable. It seems to me that colleges and universities need to prepare students for these realities: for the frustration of workplace hierarchies, for the precarity of gigging, for workplace and public policies that sometimes protect employees and sometimes exploit them. How can we help to equip graduates not only to build the careers they seek but also to deal with (and improve and sometimes quit) the jobs they get?

I’m proud that BTtoP will contribute to this emerging consensus about education for work. And I’m glad to be rid of my allergies.

[1] Matt Sigelman, “Opinion: Students Can’t Repay Loans without Jobs—Here’s How to Navigate the ‘Last Mile’ from Diploma to Employment,” Hechinger Report, March 13, 2017,