For some time now, I have been struggling with the problem of other minds. How, I’ve wondered, can everyone have access to the same information and come up with completely different conclusions?
When I was leaving home only to walk the dog in early 2020, other people were whooping it up in crowds and claiming a brand-new virus was no worse than seasonal flu. Some friends don’t believe me when I assert that Cheez-Its form the base of a healthy food pyramid. There are people who opt to have cats as pets. Go figure.
In 2016, all my friends woke on Nov. 9 into a what-just-happened stupor that has lasted years. How could we have missed this?
Easy. We were so committed to our own beliefs and worldviews that we refused to consider that anyone, especially a near majority of our fellow citizens, might have different ideas and values. We had done what humans do: buried our heads in sand, to our personal horror and the likely downfall of the republic.
Time and again, I am baffled by other minds, even those of people who share most of my opinions. These days, my befuddlement happens often in conversations with colleagues.
Many of them keep hammering on the same point: studying the humanities is a good in and of itself. That is completely true. And it’s a strategic argument that will win over no one.
Yes, I want students to read Plato, to write poetry to nourish their souls and to learn how to calculate how many angels can fit on the head of a pin. I also want them to be able to feed their bodies. And to have health insurance.
This should not be an either-or proposition, despite many tradition-bound faculty members’ belief that preparing students for postgraduation careers is crass and inappropriate.
Humanities and social science folks can be as condescending and dismissive of career-focused STEM colleagues as some politicians were of the “basket of deplorables” who supported a racist, sexist, criminal candidate for president. We ignore and sneer at our own risk.
Having done research for a book for recent grads seeking jobs, I have come to believe faculty members need only make slight tweaks to teaching practices (though bigger adjustments to thinking) in order to do both: remain committed to their disciplines and help students ready themselves for careers. It’s not an either-or situation.
Will teaching students Paradise Lost help them get jobs? Sure. But not if we talk about inculcating an ability to “think critically,” “analyze rigorously” and “communicate effectively.” Those meaningless words get thrown around in discussions of general education goals and in student learning outcomes. No employer—or really, any smart person—knows precisely what that looks like in real life.
But a student writing a cover letter to work at SpaceX who claims that reading a 10,000-line poem written more than 350 years ago and writing a 10-page paper made them realize Elon Musk is the modern embodiment of Milton’s Satan (“Space may create new worlds”) and is the reason they want to work for a visionary leader might get someone’s attention. Hiring managers need to see specifics and love numbers. Anything, they’ve told me, can be quantified.
Obviously, I’m exaggerating. (And, if you have such a student, maybe gently explain that Musk is no tragic hero.) The point is no one wants to read a bunch of cookie-cutter cover letters and résumés that tell them nothing specific. Those who don’t learn to stand out from a pack of similarly educated graduates are in for a spell living in their parents’ basement. Most of us love people who are enthusiastic and passionate about something.
Why not encourage students to focus on subjects that light them up and think about how we can help them prepare not just for an enriched life but also for careers?
Interviewing employers about what they look for made me realize that it’s in our power to convince students, their parents and state legislators that jobs are waiting for those who learn how to present themselves well, no matter what courses they’ve taken. But that’s the case only if we help students learn not just what we want to teach them but also what they need to know to be successful once they leave our classes. It’s not much.
We need to stop thinking that getting a “good” liberal arts education and snagging a “good” job are at odds. It’s just not true, and that line of thought will lead all but elite institutions to extinction.
Remember waking up on Nov. 9, 2016. The world can change without your knowledge or approval. Higher education has to evolve, whether you believe it or not, whether you like it or not.
It’s fine to make the argument that studying philosophy, literature, art and history are worthy endeavors. But if that’s where your thinking stops, you might find you’re declaiming those values while living in your parents’ basement. The gravy train, friends, has left the station. Universities are cutting entire departments in order to survive. Yours might be next.
If you want to keep your professorial gig, get your Darwin on. Adapt, evolve or go belly up.
Just as recent grads must change their mind-set from thinking that they need to sell themselves to employers and would do better to present themselves as humble, hungry and smart, you can continue to teach as you always have and realize there are easy ways to help students translate what they’ve learned from you into specific skills.
Experiences in class can count for résumé items if properly conveyed. Research techniques are valuable in the job search. And every campus has resources, starting with career centers, that will help you understand the career landscape. That’s especially important if you’ve never left academe and had one of those “real world” jobs that all our students want (because ours are not options for them).
It’s time now for all of us to get with the program. Liberal arts values and career readiness. Both-and, not either-or.