As I welcome my students on the first day of each new semester, one thing that I can count on is someone asking me, explicitly or implicitly, “how is this course going to help me get a job?” If you’re an educator today, you better be ready with a good answer, because at least from the student’s perspective, that’s what college is all about, that’s the purpose of education in the 21st century.
Monetizing knowledge is the current attitude towards education. Students want to know that the money they are spending on an education will come back to them as job earnings, so they ask, “How much can I earn from this?” Countless “coaching” web sites offer students advice on “The Skills Colleges and Employers Are Looking For.” To us, the educators, they offer advice on “How to foster the skills your students will need throughout their education and beyond.” And while the answer is frequently the 3 C’s, collaboration, communication, and critical thinking, there is no mention of what used to be thought of as a couple of other C’s: “cultural capital”, the idea that “the accumulation of knowledge,” or “cultural competence”, can determine one’s social status or standing in society. Today this idea is seen either as irrelevant or actually obsolete. The emphasis today is on skills—distinct skills strictly connected to the profession that one wishes to pursue. The possible reasons for this transformation are many, the higher cost of living, rapidly changing technology that keeps us looking forward instead of backward in order to keep up with it, or perhaps the fragmentation of a society that has rejected any idea of there being a common culture to transmit.
Historically, education was seen as a path towards self- fulfillment, a way of becoming the proverbial well rounded individual. In other words, becoming a “cultured person” gave you a better chance at happiness. This idea goes back all the way to Plato, who saw the purpose of education as that of bringing happiness. But post-modernism has led to the erasure of the boundaries between high and low culture, and eventually brought us to an anti-elitism that devalues “culture” understood as hierarchy; today being a “cultured person” is frequently seen as being antithetical to equality, indeed, to democracy. What’s more, the principles of post-modernism have indirectly led to the splintering of society into discrete groups, each identifying with a micro-society at the cost of undermining any notion of homogeneity, of the commonality implied by “nation”. A nation today is made up of many “mini-nations” of distinct cultural identities. In the place of such homogeneity we have what is essentially a Utilitarianist philosophy that values tangible results. But if wealth brings happiness, then should the role of education be tied to earnings in a materialist society? This may be the philosophical core of the debate surrounding education today.
To be a “cultured” individual may be a beautiful thing, but who are we to snub the realities of life that demand maximum earning power? In a perfect world students would have the time and money to learn about Plato and Socrates, about the poetry of Dante and Milton and so on. But this is not that perfect world and students need to learn about computer models, accounting, nursing or other professions that are in demand in today’s world. As educators we have to acknowledge the world they live in today and find the ways to instill a meaningful notion of culture that they can relate to.
As a college professor I’m appalled on a pretty regular basis by the state of education today, especially the devaluing of the liberal arts which we have to fight for on a daily basis, first against Administrators who cut funds for them and then against students who fail to see their usefulness. On the rare occasions when we get some good news we rejoice. Such was the case a few weeks ago when an article came out stating that at Google, the holy grail of the employment market, the seven top characteristics of success are all what they call “soft skills” such as “being a good coach; communicating and listening well; possessing insights into others… having empathy” and so on. The analysts were greatly surprised. They reasoned that these Google employees had been hired for their technical skills and yet those traits sounded more like what one gains as an English or theater major than as a programmer. Could it be that top Google employees were succeeding despite their technical training, not because of them?
This utilitarian philosophy, with the devaluing of “culture” as its core, along with the omnipresent use of technology as a teaching and learning medium, has already taken its toll on young people. We professors witness the impact of these factors on a daily basis in the classroom. Students’ attention span has diminished alarmingly. Their reading skills, thanks to the ubiquitous visual media, and the fact that getting knowledge from books is seen as antiquated and time-consuming, are plunging steadily. As a professor of literature I can attest to the fact that many of the books that I used to assign ten years ago, even five years ago, are unreadable for today’s students. For the current cohort of students the best book is the shortest book, and in order for them to engage with a book it must reflect their own lives. Like society in general, they’re looking to reaffirm the values they came in with—not to learn about or understand that which they don’t agree with. If they watch news programs at all they watch “niche news outlets” that ratify their pre-established opinions rather than challenge them to form new points of view.
Of course the news isn’t all bad. None of this means that students don’t learn, they just do so in different ways and that we educators are challenged to meet their needs and stretch their horizons—sometimes despite their resistance. Their abilities are visual, therefore we use more varied resources such as TED talks, YouTube clips and documentaries. Their attention span is short, so we break up tasks into bursts of activity interspersed with listening to the teacher or to each other. They like to talk and work in groups, so we have them do presentations, after due preparation of course. They struggle to find meaning in “culture”, so we choose cultural artifacts that are meaningful to them and may not reflect the hegemonic values and perspectives. In short, we prepare them for a job at Google without their even being aware of it.