The debate about whether the University of North Carolina system should place more emphasis on career training or knowledge is expected to return to the front burner early this month when an advisory committee tasked with helping chart the future direction for the state’s 16 university campuses resumes its work.
While a concern for job preparation is not surprising after a serious recession, universities need to be careful about designing undergraduate educations that are too closely tied to particular jobs. Direct job-education connections are dangerous for several reasons.
Although universities traditionally have had a role in some relatively specific training (for example, teaching or engineering), the lives of most of our graduates will be too complicated to assume that narrow training will provide all the formal education they will ever need. Most students graduating today will experience life trajectories that involve multiple jobs and even multiple, varied careers. The pace of change will only accelerate during the lifetimes of those who enter college in the future.
Moreover, some of those career changes will result from changes in those graduates that occur after their college years. Most people’s identities, including their commitments to vocation, values and beliefs, are not completely formed by age 22 or even age 30. A college education often is a mediator of the developmental process, not the producer of a final outcome.
Another reason for caution is that predictions of what jobs are going to be available, even in the near future, are notoriously unreliable. Marketable skills and future demand are two variables that are difficult to coordinate. Talk with North Carolinians who prepared for jobs in tobacco, textiles or fiber optics. Or talk with students who just a few years ago decided to become educators to help alleviate our teacher shortage and then found there were no jobs for them when the shortage disappeared with a simple increase in class-size limits.
Also to the point, we should be cautious about tying university education to jobs because specific job training is brittle education. Because it is tied to specific protocols, technologies and skills, when the job changes or the person changes jobs, the training becomes obsolete.
In the western part of the state, we now have educational programs for card dealers and beer brewers. While a boon to specific employers who need workers at a particular time and place, it is hard to imagine there is much transfer of those skills gained from such narrow training to other jobs. Employers are not interested in the employee’s next job.
For more than a century, the Americans who received the most long-lasting, flexible educations have been those who have learned to read, write and think. The students who are most likely to be able to learn new skills are those whose curiosity and creativity have been stimulated in a wide variety of subject areas. Students need to learn how to learn, and to learn to want to learn more.
Finally, we need to be careful not to neglect the arts and humanities in a rush to prepare students for jobs. Many of us had our lives changed by college courses that were remote from job training. I never once considered a job in art history, but no course in my own college experience changed my life more than the “art in the dark” course that led me to a life-long appreciation of great art.
The UNC system is one of North Carolina’s greatest assets. While change is essential in higher education, radical change in a system admired around the nation is risky. The people of North Carolina are right to hold the state’s universities to high standards.
There is nothing magic about a liberal arts education. It works when students are required to read a lot, write a lot and think a lot. A good college education educates for a willingness to adapt to, and even embrace, change. A rigorous education, not narrow job training, is what we should demand from the constituents of the UNC system. A rigorous education will ensure that our citizens are prepared not just for their first jobs, but also for their second jobs, especially for those kinds of jobs that do not yet exist.
Bruce Henderson is a professor of psychology at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee.