24 September 2016

About that Abyss that's Gazing Back at Us

According to the editorial board of our student newspaper, "too much homework has real post-graduation consequences," and they respectfully suggest that professors assign less "homework."

The editorial neatly sketches the abyss into which public higher education is teetering:

1. A college education exists to help you get a good job after graduation.
2. Anything you do while going to college that will help you get a good job after graduation is worth spending time on.
3. Anything you do in college that doesn't help you get a good job is a potential waste of time.
4. Most college courses do not train you for a job. 
5. The things that you do outside the classroom in order to learn the content of your courses (e.g., "homework") are a waste of time.
6. Therefore, the work of learning the content of your courses should be subordinated to the things that will get you a job, like extracurricular activities, internships, and part-time paid employment (which also helps to alleviate your student debt burdens).

Of course, as the students point out, the abyss also looks like this:
Often, students must take on extra jobs and excel in multiple internships to be competitive candidates in their desired fields.From a financial perspective, students often need to work one or more part-time jobs. About 30 percent of students at the University work one or more of these jobs because of the high price of college.With the hefty costs of tuition in mind, students need to maximize their time at the University so that their jobs after graduation can pay enough to help repay their debts.
In my current position, helping English and Creative Writing majors prepare for post-graduation employment, I'm often the one nudging students towards this abyss, urging them to pick up jobs or activities that will help them build their applicable skills and demonstrate them to employers. Our alumni generally seem to get good jobs that they like, but it can take them a few years of floundering first, and our students are more likely to get good jobs upon graduation if they do some of that floundering while they are here.

So my dismay is not directed at the students who are trying to live in this world. It's not even directed at the forces (public divestment in education, funding gaps that are increasingly filled by corporate encroachment, exploitative student debt practices) that have created that world. I've been dismayed by those for a long time, as any reader of this blog knows.

Rather, this editorial gets under my skin as evidence of how lousy public higher education in Illinois has been at pushing back against those forces, how little scope we've given the students--even at the state's flagship institution--to recognize that colleges and universities exist to do anything other than train an entry-level workforce. The DI editorial board has internalized an understanding of higher education that the university itself increasingly puts forward. That's the abyss.

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