A Liberal-Arts Education is the Key to Navigating the Changes that Come Or What to do with a Philosophy Degree!!

Dear Commons Community,

The New York Times Magazine had an article exploring the role of Andy Chan, head of Wake Forest University’s Office of Personal and Career Development (O.P.C.D.).  It focuses much of the time on how Chan replies to concerns from the parents of freshmen about their children’s choice of major particularly if it is in a liberal-arts area.  It starts with a review of his presentation at freshmen orientation:

“At orientation, Chan gave a rousing talk to parents, encouraging them to let their children follow their interests, knowing that his office was looking after their employability: 95 percent of Wake Forest’s graduates, he told them, were either fully employed or in graduate school within six months of graduating. (Eighty percent of the class of 2012 responded to the survey.) The room suddenly felt festive with affirmation. “Wow,” one parent said, loudly enough to be heard across the room… Chan explained that his chief strategy is “to create a kind of ecosystem where everyone has a vested interest in helping our students be prepared for life and for careers and for work” — a university-wide, collective assumption that the faculty was there not just to expand students’ intellectual horizons but also to help however it could in creating job-ready students.”

Chan’s message is surely important as higher education keeps creeping to a commodification model where a college degree is seen basically as a ticket to a job and career.  The article also refers to the opinions of several faculty some of whom welcome Chan’s approach and others who have concerns:

“…Susan Rupp, a professor of Russian history at Wake Forest, said she had misgivings…She said she would not be very likely to invite someone from O.P.C.D. into her classroom to explain the class’s professional value. “It reduces an education to the marketplace,” she said. Instead, she says, teaching history should be about helping young people to understand “the relationship of the individual to the larger society.”

Andrew Delbanco, a professor at Columbia, writes in his book, “College: What It Was, Is and Should Be,” that colleges should help students develop “a skeptical discontent with the present, informed by a sense of the past.” Can liberal-arts schools encourage students to question the status quo while simultaneously reminding them from their first days on campus to keep their employability in mind?

Michele Gillespie, another history professor at Wake Forest, has been receptive to O.P.C.D.  but has concerns about some of its innovations — among them, classes on career development for academic credit that teach students how to “brand themselves,” how to identify themselves through personality tests and form a customized, consistent description of the self. “These kids’ frontal temporal lobes are barely formed,” Gillespie says; as teachers, she and her peers “are trying to open their minds, to see complexities and tensions.” The emphasis on translating academics into skills also struck her as problematic. “They want to know what the calculus is: How will doing an honors thesis translate into my ability to persuade my manager to put me on the management track? How can I sell this? How can I market these things? I fear that the students see the learning as a means to an end and don’t connect as much to the learning that’s taking place.”

The article provides important insights into the concerns and anxieties of students, parents, and faculty as to the selection of a major. My view is that students should follow their passions.


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