Rethinking Success: Liberal Arts and Careers for the 21st century

I’ve just arrived in Wake Forest NC for the Rethinking Success Conference where we’re planning on thinking about liberal arts and careers.  This has been a particular area that I’ve put some emphasis on in the past couple of years since becoming dean, believing we need to do a much better job of articulating the connections, but also forging connections, not just articulating.  In our areas in the humanities at Messiah College,  I’ve asked faculty and departments to craft more comprehensive career development plans connected to the curriculum, to focus on advising for life after college, to connect more intentionally with our Career Center, and to do a better job of highlighting the variety of successes that our humanities majors have had in the world of work and other areas of endeavor in their lives after college.  I’m looking forward to this conference to see what we’ve done well and what we could do better.  Attendees are from a wide variety of institutions–though a particularly heavy dose of national liberal arts colleges and Ivies–and Messiah is one of two institutions I saw associated with the CCCU, so maybe our particular orientation as a faith-based institution can bring something useful to the conversation.

I admit there’s a part of me that can be a little leery about these kinds of conversations.  On the one hand, I think a lot of time humanities scholars and administrators  get together and cheerlead, preaching to the choir about how badly our disciplines are needed, without really thinking through material and discursive needs of our various audiences.  This conference doesn’t look like it will do that, but it does strike me that “Rethinking Success” could mean many different things.

On the one hand, “Rethinking Success” could be a wagging finger in the face of the body politic, or, since I’m not so certain that we have a body politic in this country anymore, maybe we should call it the body economicus.  That is, talking about Rethinking Success in humanistic circles often devolves in to discussion about how the culture at large needs to rethink success, and we in the humanities are just the people who are there to help them do it.  Give up your pecuniary interests, we say, and learn how to be civic minded by majoring in the liberal arts. So we take it as our job to shame the commercialization of the culture at large in the hopes that it will have a heartfelt conversion and find their way back to philosophy, theology, history, and literature–in other words, the way to rethink success is to encourage everyone else to change their habits so that we can do what we’ve always done and be …..more successful at it.

I actually don’t completely disagree with that notion.  As I’ve noted in my sometimes mixed reviews of Andrew Delbanco’s recent book,  I really do think there is a lot to be said for recapturing a better notion of the civic orientation and the transformative character of learning that has typically characterized learning in liberal arts colleges.  In other words, understanding that life and learning is more than instrumental is the bailiwick of the liberal arts, and that involves people rethinking what success means in life.

I remember an undergraduate class I had as a freshman wherein I was asked to list my life goals.  I indicated I wanted to own a house on a lake and a boat.  My professor rather drily noted in the margins, “You may want to rethink this.”  Indeed, and my liberal arts education did in fact work the kind of transforming power that Delbanco talks about by reorienting my thinking about what was really important in life.  (On the other hand, I still wouldn’t mind owning a house on a lake and a boat, I just don’t’ define that as a life’s goal and purpose).

Nevertheless, I think that “Rethinking Success” can’t be focused outwardly alone for those of us who are in the liberal art and in the humanities especially.  We need to do some self-examination for how and why the humanities may need to change what it is doing in the world today, rather than taking on the role of the embattled chosen remnant of some lost educational utopia.  Especially, I think that we need to think carefully about how much our undergraduate education is focused on reproducing people just like us.  That is, we imagine success in our areas as producing future holders of doctorates and professors in colleges and universities across the country.  The sign of a “successful” program is the production of such future professors.  Bunk.  We need to recognize that success in our areas has to mean the production of thoughtful and informed persons who go on to become bankers;  we need to value students and programs that prepare secondary teachers as much or more than we value programs that produce PhD candidates;  we need to prepare and applaud students who make their way into the many different horizons of the world, not simply those who make their way in to our world as future professors, a form of narcissistic projection if there ever was one.  And we need to think about how our curricula prepare students for these horizons.  I’ve suggested to others many times in the past that in the humanities we tend to do a great job of broadening students horizons, but we need to do a much better job of showing them how to forge pathways in to those horizons.  Facilitating students pathway in to a vocation or a career is not something extraneous to our educational purpose.  In most ways it is central to our purpose and we have forgotten or ignored that.

I’m hoping this conference will help me and my colleagues here how to think through that issue.

If you’re interested in following along with the conference, I know there’s a twitter hashtag #rethinkingsuccess.  I’ll be blogging about the conference sporadically at this site, and I know my colleague John Fea intends to do so as well.  Your thoughts and comments are appreciated.

2 thoughts on “Rethinking Success: Liberal Arts and Careers for the 21st century

  1. Jenny Zimmerman

    I want to read more about this conference, mostly because, as a secondary teacher, I feel I’m trying to prepare some students for college, but also because I was a humanities major (well, English), and I really feel like the holistic approach prepared me well for life.

    One thing I’ve really been confronted with in the “real world” is that not everyone loves learning. My housemate pointed out to me how much she can see that I love it, and she’s rarely known anyone, even at university, who genuinely loved learning that much. People like learning, some learn when they have to, but, few adore soaking in information… this mindset doesn’t always make sense to me, but I’m beginning to understand that it exists.

    I’d love to get 3-4 more degrees… but life isn’t allowing me to pursue them at this time, so I’m teaching and researching on my own and trying to soak my students in as much knowledge, in the beginnings of philosophy, argument, literature, history as their young minds can take, and it’s a lot of hard work, but at this moment, it’s the best I can do, and it’s the place I feel I need to be, not just financially, but… I feel it’s my purpose.

    I don’t think I’ll always be a teacher, but right now, it’s where I need to be and, spiritually speaking, Messiah helped me learn to discern between what I want to do with my life, and my “vocation” or “calling” or… where God’s put me. God’s put me at the front of a classroom of 20 international students in East London, with incredibly diverse backgrounds, educationally and otherwise, and varying abilities. Instead of understanding sophisticated and phd level ideas, as I would like to be doing, I spend most of my time breaking down information to make it palatable and comprehensible and (I hope) interesting for them. It’s not where I often want to be, but it’s SO fulfilling, and I learned to love it from working in the Writing Center at Messiah, and setting up study groups at Messiah, and being a tour guide at Messiah, and being a peer leader at Messiah… all those skills help me be a better teacher.

    Maybe one day I’ll get to study again… I hope so! Maybe one day I’ll have to rethink my skill set and work through my resume to branch out into another profession… who knows? But I do feel that I was “educated for life” at Messiah, and if all these changes have been happening, then I feel the current students will have even more opportunities, not fewer, than I did.

    Thanks for considering all of those questions. I think questioning ones self–that process of humility and reflection–definitely leads down the road of success, regardless of how you think about it.

  2. Pingback: On being human: Lessons from Harvard Institute of Higher Education Management | Read, Write, Now

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