Are Career Development Officers and Liberal Arts Professors Ships passing in the night?

The first day of the Rethinking Success conference was highly informative and stimulating, but also weirdly disjunctive in certain respects.  This was best represented in the two afternoon sessions.  The first focused on historical perspectives on liberal arts and careers and featured scholars from the liberal arts, Andrew Delbanco (Columbia) and Stan Katz (Princeton).  The second session, focused on Employment and Market issues featuring three panelists concerned primarily with different issues associated with careers and college–Philip Gardner (Collegiate Employment Research institute, Michigan State), Debra Humphreys (AACU), and Mark Zandi (Moody’s Analytics and

Independently these were two very good sessions.  Together I think they embodied a problem rather than elucidating it.

That is all the panelists were passionate about students, concerned about college and its roles in students’ lives, and convinced that we needed to do something different.  However, it was as if the two panels were speaking different languages or talking past one another.  The format of the sessions, which was tightly controlled and didnt really invite cross panel reflections or responses, contributed to this sense I had that we do not really yet have a common language to talk about the liberal arts and careers.  What we really have is two different groups talking about the same thing in the same place, but not really talking in a way that was informed by the other’s concerns.

In the first session Delbanco and Katz raised the traditional defenses of the liberal arts that one could expect of those steeped in and defending that tradition.  By contrast the market trends folk were emphatic about the primacy of career considerations in pursuing your college education. A few of my tweeted notes and paraphrases suggests the contrast:

  • From Andrew Delbanco:  Education is in essence, an effort to resist death, to preserve knowledge and pass it on to our children.
  • From one of the second panelists:  We need to be relying on venture capitalists who can see 5 or 10 years in to the future to predict the kinds of skills and emphases we need to be giving students in their education.
  • From Mark Zandi:  The dollar value of higher education has declined even as the cost of higher education has skyrocketed
  • From Andrew Delbanco:  We’re not providing students the time to reflect, the time for contemplation to reflect on who you are
  • From Philip Gardner:  Internships are the most important thing students do in college.

It’s not that there’s anything specifically wrong with any of these proclamations;  it’s just the these folks aren’t really in conversation with each other and it seems to me that they don’t yet have a language where they can converse.

There was one point of commonality on which everyone seemed to agree, even in their different languages, and that was on the need for breadth and depth, that it is not enough to train narrowly for a specific field but that the creativity and innovation that would be required for successful career paths in the future required a combinations of the two.

  • From Stan Katz:  Provincialism is narrow specialization. Liberal arts creates generalists capable of engaging the larger world.
  • From Gardner:  In this day and age you must either be a liberally educated technical student, or a technically savvy liberal arts student, there is no middle ground.
  • Gardner: Innovation comes from thinking broadly, between functions rather than only in your particular role
  • Humphreys–Narrow Learning is not enough. It’s not a choice between tech ed and big issue ed. We must have both.

I thought the second panel was a little better on this than the representatives of the liberal arts, perhaps because the broad and deep model is still somewhat embodied in systems of general education that rely–in however wan and half-hearted a way in many professional and technical programs in university settings–on a liberal arts ethos.  Ironically, this problem is harder for the denizens of the liberal arts because we have to think through the question of what it might mean for our “deep education” in a liberal arts discipline to be come more deeply connected to the workplace.  What would it mean to develop a technically savvy graduate of a liberal arts program.  One solution would be to reimagine  the general education programs we have so that they had higher components of technological learning–and I think that’s something to consider.  Another possibility would be to think about how to transform our majors so that they insist on higher levels of technological competence as that is appropriate to our changing fields, as well as deeper levels of engagement with the translation and transition of skills from the academy to the marketplace.

And I think that’s something to consider as well.

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