Women In Academia

Women in Academia: What’s the Goal of Higher Education?

On one occasion when I was flying across the country, I sat next to a loud man and his quiet wife. During takeoff, he started to make small talk of the usual airplane seat-buddy variety. I told him about my trip, briefly, and, since this was many, many years ago, I told him about my undergraduate major that I was well on my way to finishing. He cut me off in the middle with, “Computers! Software or programming! That’s where the money is! Don’t waste your time with that stuff,” referring to my liberal arts major. The conversation didn’t last long after that, but his response still makes me think about the role of college.

I’m going to go ahead and let the cat out of the bag: I strongly value liberal arts education and “non-practical” majors. Now I’m not saying that everyone must go to college, though, Rick Santorum, if you’re reading, I guess I’m a snob because I do believe that everyone should have the opportunity to go to college. But perhaps my view of college is too idyllic, and does not fit with the current social and economic climate. With the quite frankly terrible economy and the rising student debt, perhaps people do not have the opportunity to use college as anything other than preparation for a specific career.

College should provide students with the opportunity to develop critical thinking skills, and to ask important and relevant questions. It should not focus solely on teaching facts (though facts are definitely important), but also on theoretical frameworks, synthesis of ideas, and application of the entire body of information. It should provide students with an opportunity to grow as intellectuals, as thinkers, and, honestly, as people.

College comes at the cusp of adulthood. It comes at the cusp of all sorts of development. It provides an opportunity for students to explore themselves and their world and knowledge as a whole. I value this exploration. People who have a well-honed set of specific, practical skills make good workers, but critical thinking is also a skill, and it’s one that requires training. Developing critical thinking skills doesn’t require training in a college setting, but a college setting is a great place to hone them. I would like to see a growing appreciation of the skills that come from a liberal arts education, instead of a movement towards valuing strictly “practical” majors.

What is your experience? What do you think the goals of college should be?

13 replies on “Women in Academia: What’s the Goal of Higher Education?”

I totally agree! I’m doing my Master’s in a different field than my Bachelor’s was – a direct result of my school requiring me to take courses outside of my major. And, though it is really hard not to have an undergrad in the field when all the other students do, my unusual background does seem like it’ll be an advantage once I “catch up” that knowledge.

For my college was a complete personality shift. The Me! Before College is a such a different creature to who I am now. I was depressed, listless, didn’t have any goals, was incredibly shy and found it hard to connect with people.

I’m in grad school now and I am more responsible, I am not depressed, I have many friends, I DO THINGS AND NOT ALL OF THEM ONLINE, I’m living on my own and I am a functioning member of society.

And I’ve learned some shit.

For me, college was completely about the learning experiences and challenges. Testing myself over and over again and finding I could cope.

As for what I learned in my classes? It depends. We keep the information we can apply to our own lives and use again. That’s the way our brains work. Or some articles/books are far more interesting and just stick and make you think about things differently. I can’t say I remember much about my Math or Science requirements, but my history classes (was a History major in undergrad, persuing a MLIS in grad school) were fantastic.

As far as I’m concerned, university/college is not just about your classroom education: learning how to sift evidence, formulate an evidence-based argument, present constructive criticism, communicate effectively face-to-face and in writing. Yes, it’s about all of that. But it’s also about learning to be an adult. It’s only one way of doing that, sure, but it’s a damn good one. For me, centuries ago, it was a safe way to leave home (though the ructions when it became apparent that I wasn’t coming back when I graduated are a whole ‘nother story…). And too it’s about finding out who you are: having a safe space to experiment with ideas and opinions and self-presentation, and learning how to live and work with relative strangers, those whom you have to tolerate through gritted teeth as well as those destined to become friends for life.

I’m under no illusions about how much content from the courses I teach will actually stick in my students’ brains, 6 months after exams or graduation. But I do hope I have played a small part in empowering them to be well-informed, well-balanced, net contributors to the sum of human wellbeing, whatever subject they’ve been studying. A narrowly utilitarian view of tertiary education, as increasingly promoted by governments of all stripes here in the UK, is woefully short-sighted and ultimately hugely detrimental to all of us, university educated or not.

I was dumb about college. I knew I wanted to write poems and maybe stories. I applied to one small liberal arts college, very expensive, because it had a creative writing major. My parents were angry at me for applying, because they didn’t have the money. I had a couple years’ savings from working through two years of high school, but that was about it. I didn’t apply anywhere else, either…I didn’t know how things worked. If I hadn’t gotten into that college, I would have stayed home and gone to the community college. (This is what my brother did…he then transferred to a state university. He is super successful now, and happy, so that worked out fine for him.)

I did get in and got a ton of gift aid and scholarships. Then I went to grad school so I could keep working on my writing.  I figured I after that, I would do service-type jobs for a while and eventually get published enough to get a teaching job. I really didn’t understand that someone could break into the world of white-collar jobs, unless they had a degree in business or something else that I didn’t like.

I wound up with a dream career by accident. I saw the Hallmark portfolio that you fill out to apply for a writing job sitting around in a fellow grad student’s apartment, and I decided to apply too. For the most part, I’ve done really fun jobs with really fun people for really good pay.

So for me, being completely impractical worked out pretty well (other than my MFA program being terrible.) Still, I think maybe students with “non-practical” majors could use more guidance in translating their studies and getting extracurricular experience that lead into a decent job. I’ve talked to several recent grads who think their weird degree makes them unemployable, but that’s really not true. Companies sometimes do hire people with unusual degrees, especially if candidates can connect some dots between what they’ve studied and what the companies do.

College made me much more eh.. self-saving? If you didn’t hunt your teachers and professors down, you might never get your grades/extra classes/learning material. If you didn’t use your own agenda and plan your own hours, you’d fail your semester. You had to take care of everything and during the first years I felt like sitting down and yelling for my mommy, I made it through. Besides that I met people from across the country and different lifestyles. I think it’s a pretty necessary stage of life.

When I applied to undergrad schools, I only applied to liberal arts ones, even though I knew I’d be going for a science degree. Why? Because science does not exist in a vacuum- no part of life or one’s future job does.

I have an increasing number of friends who are teaching undergrads now and the stories they tell me about their students’ ability to think critically, or even creatively, is amazing (in a sad kind of way). It’s been a while since I taught high school (before I went back for my own higher degrees), but there was only so much encouragement for students to think beyond just what teachers/adults told them so they could pass and get the hell out. No, not all students are like that, but I would say nearly a majority of them. There are definitely people who finish high school and are confident and competent enough to be something like a real adult all on their own, but not many. College ends up acting like a transitional time- adulthood with training wheels- and in the process I would hope students get the chance to really connect with something they love to do (especially if it’s impractical), and to think for themselves more than a little.

I know a few teachers who stress about kids getting a balance of liberal/humanities education along with the sciences and math. Our medical and law schools here really prefer students from an arts and science background. Every one of their recruiting fairs I’ve been too, they stress how unimaginative pre-med and pre-law students can be sometimes. One professor told me he loves getting the philosophy and art majors in med school because they are great at critical thinking and can write too. College isn’t necessary but it really is a life changer for others.

My article came out just after yours – they seem to go well together.  I am strongly in favor of the liberal arts education – I think that college is where you learn how to be a thinking person.  You can do that without college, of course, but a small liberal arts college fosters critical thinking skills and opens minds…I cannot stress how valuable I think that is.

Yes. I was happy to see the one on liberal arts. It’s sad how few students don’t take it seriously. But with the economy these days, I understand that some people just want “practical” degrees. I’ve been lucky to be in a major that combines both. I am currently a sophomore in college and my one regret in life is not going to my number one choice for college, which was a liberal arts school in Chicago. I take some courses at my current school but boy, I sure do regret it. Also, I plan on going to grad school after so it’s not like I couldn’t have done liberal arts and then gone to grad school. College can be a waste of time if you have skills and already know what to do with it, but it has been a eye opener for me.

I don’t think I dare tell anyone what to do. I believe in “following one’s heart”, basically, but if that involves getting into deep debt with a bleak outlook on ever finding worthwhile employment, then I’m not so sure any longer. And on the other hand, I’m definitely not of a mind that anyone going for a nice, practical kind of career is some sort of a limited-imagination sellout. If you value a nice living standard and think you can put up with a dull-ish day job for the sake of it, then it’s probably worth a try.

Moving on to the personal anecdote, I’m from a poor family in a poor country, and I still went with my gut feeling and studied something completely impractical (okay, might as well say it, art history), because I damn well wanted to. I didn’t really feel there was much of a choice for me, to be honest. We had plenty of “suitable careers for you” kind of testing done in high school and I had the most extreme results in my class, with basically no other viable options besides something with a lot of independence and creativity involved. It seemed pretty much guaranteed I would be miserable if I went into something just for the sake of a solid future income. So impractical was what I tried for, and luckily I managed to get into a good school in my home town for free. (There was no realistic way I could have afforded to pay or to move to another town to study.)

Now, living with that decision hasn’t always been easy, I’m still poor and I’m probably not going to get rich, ever, but evidently I’ve survived on the post-grad scholarships, on the so-so temp jobs, and for the past few years, the first “real” one. I’m currently working in the field I chose, earning not much but still the most I ever have, and generally feeling pretty good about my job, which I know is no small feat. Also, everybody else who was in my undergrad class, when we all got told there won’t be jobs for us out there, has built either decent or thriving careers. Because arguably those who got into that program were pretty gifted to begin with, and we received a solid, flexible basic skillset to build upon.

I don’t think graduates, even from the most practical fields, emerge from higher education as pre-formed puzzle pieces meant to click into the right place that’s been waiting in the big picture. It seems to be more about carving a niche for oneself somewhere out there.

Thanks for this. I love hearing about outside-of-the-U.S. experiences: I’ve hardly traveled at all and it’s easy for me to think about things from an isolated perspective.

I think you were very smart to realize the wrong kind of job would make you miserable. One year, I took a kind of fancy businessy job as an advertising manager. I don’t like to think of myself as a sensitive flower, but I just couldn’t cope in that very corporate environment.

My mother worked for the university I attended, which gave me the good fortune to purse my undergrad degrees at lower tuition rates (and no loans! Alas that wasn’t the case for grad school). This meant I was able to complete two Honours BA degrees: Japanese Studies and Anthropology was the first, Political Science was the second. The second I took purely for mercenary purposes primarily, since I knew that work in the other fields would be forthcoming.

It was so worth it.

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