Nuts and Bolts

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal tells about how disenchanted employers are with their employees who have majored in business but can’t use their minds. That comes under the heading of “Duhhh.” As the article notes, The biggest complaint: The undergraduate degrees focus too much on the nuts and bolts of finance and accounting and don’t develop enough critical thinking and problem-solving skills through long essays, in-class debates and other hallmarks of liberal-arts courses. I have been saying this ad nauseam, as readers of these blogs and my book on education and published articles will attest. It has been known for years that those trained to do specific tasks are too close to the trees to see the forest.  For example, students who major in business have historically scored low on the LSAT tests required by law schools, a fairly accurate indicator of weak analytical skills. As this article notes, such students lack communication skills as well. Employers have been saying for some time that they need employees who can make an oral presentation, read and write memos, and “think outside the box.” This complaint is not all that new.

The explanation is not hard to find. Increasingly in recent years local school boards, made up of small businessmen and businesswomen, farmers, and a cross-section of the local population have embraced the business model that stresses the bottom line and have been pushing vocational courses in the public schools. At the level of higher education, the business model has been adopted as well and administrators are increasingly trained in “academic administration,” with a smattering of liberal arts courses and the faculties themselves are for the most part trained in narrow disciplines while the liberal arts wallow in obscurity and enrollments dwindle. It is perfectly understandable that the business world would now discover that its employees cannot use their minds even though they can do a few things fairly well. But it is not only business that has suffered from the increased emphasis on vocational training.

Society, especially a democratic society, needs people who can think, who can make the intelligent choices and work through the mud that surrounds them. But while companies, especially large corporations, may complain about the inability of their employees to think critically,  they assuredly do not want people who are likely to stir up the mud. And you can’t have it both ways. So they have not been willing to endorse a meaningful course of study in the liberal arts for future employees and have been only too willing to push for more business courses and increasing emphasis on “career” paths through the minefield of both lower and higher education. So the result is a plethora of well-trained but uneducated employees who have a narrow focus and cannot see the wider canvas.

Employers will continue to complain that they need employees with communication skills who can write an intelligible memo and make persuasive oral presentations, solve problems and think critically. But, liberal arts courses are expensive and don’t appeal to the masses of poorly trained students coming out of the high schools who want a piece of paper that will make them marketable in the short term. Furthermore, employers will continue to choose those graduates with business and marketing majors because they don’t need expensive training, and they won’t be likely to think too much about what they are doing. Eventually the companies will figure out that they can’t have it both ways and they will have to choose between employees who can think for themselves or employees who will do what they are told. It’s not hard to guess which choice they will make.

Note the irony: the education establishment has increasingly embraced the business model and even introduced a plethora of business courses into high school and college curricula (with the encouragement of business itself) and now those in business are complaining that the people working for them can’t use their minds.  It’s called being “hoist by your own petard.”

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Crimes In Our Colleges

One of the crimes committed each day in our colleges nationwide is the crime of poor advising. The students are manipulated to fill classrooms in order to protect faculty positions. Let’s take a typical case. The names will be changed to protect the innocent.

Sandy is a young 18 year-old women who has entered Myway State University and meets with her faculty adviser on the first day of registration. She enters college without knowing what she wants to do with her life — after all, she’s only 18! But she has a notion that it would be fun to sell things, so she ends up in the room with the Marketing adviser. That person greets her with a smile and promptly sits her down with a class schedule and tries to help her decide which among the hundreds of classes will be best for her. To begin with, she has to get her “generals” out of the way, as the adviser tells her with a sneer (thereby forever turning the young woman’s mind against “General Education,” which she now perceives to be a waste of her time). Once they are “out of the way” she can get to the important classes — in Marketing, of course.

Long story short, Sandy graduates with a good G.P.A. and discovers that there are very few jobs available and the few she applies for go to people with more experience. She is told again and again that what she learned in college is pretty much passé and she would have been better off waiting to learn marketing skills on the job, should she ever find one. Sandy is now caught between a rock and a hard place. She has narrow job skills and very few prospects. What went wrong?

It started in that room where she met with her adviser, of course. It started with the sneer about “generals.” The general courses are precisely the courses that would have broadened her perspective and given her a wider view and better skills once she found herself a job. Recent studies even suggest it would have helped her find a job in the first place. There are still jobs out there for good people, people who can use their minds, have good communication skills, can prepare a clear presentation, and write a coherent report. In other words, liberal skills, the skills that are taught in the “general” courses her adviser snickered at when she was a Freshman. To be sure, a few marketing courses would have looked good on her résumé, though she may have already begun to have reservations about going into that field by the time she graduated. After all, it was four years ago and she’s a changed person. In any event, those courses should have been kept at a minimum and most of her time would have been better spent on general courses, the ones her adviser steered her away from.

That crime, and thousands like it are repeated every day on college campuses across the country. And the faculty advisers keep guiding students into narrow channels from which they cannot escape when it turns out later they cannot find employment, or they find themselves in a dead-end job. The skills that comprise what have been called the “liberal arts” are precisely those skills that allow young people to negotiate in the rough waters of a changing world and avoid the rocks of disappointment. And they have come into disfavor on college campuses because so many faculty members were themselves trained in narrow specializations and that’s all they know about higher education. In order to keep their jobs it behooves them to advise students to do what they did: become narrow and over-specialized. But whatever you do, take my classes!

During the thirty years I advised honor students who were majoring in various disciplines I saw this time after time — and not just in fields like marketing but in every academic area. Further, everything I read led me to conclude that it was happening in colleges and universities all over the country. It is a crime, indeed, and one for which no one gets punished except the students who are paying through the nose for an “education when, in fact, they are getting narrow job training that restricts them for life.