This fall's crop of college freshmen and their anxious parents are probably already thinking about what major to choose. After all, college is a serious financial investment, and with fears of a double-dip recession looming, picking a major that promises entree to a lucrative and sustainable career—one that allows repaying student loans—seems like a no-brainer. But is the way we're increasingly connecting higher education with careers actually a good idea?
Casey Wiley, an English lecturer at Penn State, writes in an op-ed for Inside Higher Education that he recently met with a student who pointedly asked him, “Can I get a job with an English degree?” Wiley wanted to "tell her not to worry about the college-to-job equation, that she’s in college to broaden her mind, to question, to grow intellectually—all the learning clichés that hold true."
But that's not why students are heading to school anymore. Wiley cites a 2009 survey of Penn State students that asked students to identify why they're in college. Roughly half of that year's freshmen class said they'd gone to college "to prepare for a vocation [or] learn what I have to know in order to enter a particular career." As for Wiley's noble vision of the purpose of higher education, “to pursue scholarly activities for intellectual development” came in second. In third place was "to discover and develop my own talents,” and fourth was "to become more mature, learn how to take on responsibility and become an adult."
Even though students have jobs on the brain, Wiley rightly notes that students who major in English don't necessarily end up becoming English teachers, writers, or editors. They may go to work in any number of fields, or end up going on to law or business school. They may end up starting their own business, and they may change careers several times. Wiley himself had five different careers before he became an English professor.
Likewise, those who end up majoring in petroleum engineering simply because they read that petroleum engineers have the highest starting salaries of all college majors could end up being laid off if their firms move overseas. And because technology changes so quickly, they might have a hard time finding other positions if they didn't spend their college years acquiring a deep knowledge base and the ability to innovate and think critically and creatively. Besides, many jobs of the future probably haven't even been invented yet, so there is no major for them.
Indeed, to shift his student's relatively short-sighted thinking about the purpose of higher education, Wiley assigned his classes to read David Foster Wallace's poignant 2005 Kenyon College commencement speech, which challenges "the so-called real world of men and money and power." Wallace posits that true living is instead about "being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day."
Similarly, Steve Jobs said in his famous 2005 Stanford commencement address that "Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart."
Can you imagine if Jobs had been pushed into petroleum engineering instead of following his passions?
Of course, reconnecting with the nobler purpose of education doesn't mean that students shouldn't also acquire tangible, practical skills during their four years of college. Nobody wants students to be unprepared for the 21st-century workforce. But if we see college solely as a means to an end, we risk breeding a generation of workers that don't genuinely care about what they're doing. The last thing our economy needs is a bunch of robots, working only for a paycheck and eternally dreading the start of the workweek. If we don't adjust our thinking about the true purpose of education, that's exactly what we'll get.