Why Prepare for Work?

Interesting piece in the March 26th Bloomberg Businessweek about disrupting the US admissions test industry.

The question is begged: Why are we preparing people for work? Why is this the metric?

Most of us professors, I hope, are not interested in preparing people for a “life of work” but “a life of which work will play a part.”

We would hope to provide students abilities and tools to critique the life of work and provide criticism and thoughtful questioning of any system that people feel is natural, normal, or expected.

But perhaps working for an institution that hasn’t changed that much since the 13th century isn’t the best place to lodge a critique against Kantar and her ideas. I really do like the idea of a test that considers your relative achievement given where you did most of your schooling and where you live.

However this metric is also based, oddly, on the idea that university is a one-size-fits-all proposition. I wonder how many university folks think this way. I’m sure there’s excitement when a former student gets a good job. But that’s not very exciting to me. I’d like to know what they are thinking about, reading, and questioning, and where those threads extend into their past at the university.

Preparing students for a life of work is very different from preparing students for a life of which work is a significant part. But the university fails to see that students cannot spend 80 to 100 hours a week at work. They will have to live in communities and do other things. This is the blind spot of discussions like this, which focus on giving access to people who need it in order to make sure we are getting the best workers.

Instead, we should focus admissions on creating student classes that reflect the sort of practices, diversity, and activities we’d like to see mirrored in our own communities. Long ago, universities offered courses on theater appreciation and music appreciation. These courses no longer fit into the worker-oriented curriculum. But the university experience is still offering appreciation courses in interaction, reading, writing, studying, relationships, persuading - the list goes on and on. The implicit and undirected appreciation sends people out into the world with a very impoverished idea of what community and living together feels and looks like. The college experience should generate some nostalgia for the university, where people had time to read and discuss ideas, where people appreciated arguments and detailed conversations, and where inquiry and criticism are not in the way of “getting things done.” The lack of that in their daily lives might inspire people to work to create it in our communities. The practice of critical thought and an appreciation for intellectual discourse starts in the university experience, one that should be oriented around many different types of diversity and thought and not just who is best equipped to be the object of future employment.

I think it’s good to have checks on biases in a system that is essential for living a higher quality of life (for the most part). So I sympathize with this idea. But on the university side we could peel ourselves away from serving a corporate lifestyle and instead work on modeling the joys of an interactive and critical community, perhaps the first model of a community that these young people will encounter away from their parents and relatives. Enjoyment of thought there will be missed in the daily grind, and they might seek ways to re-establish it in different and engaging ways.