Can we create a humanities for the 21st century?: Reflections on Cathy Davidson

I’ve been invited to serve on a panel at the Lilly Fellows Administrators Workshop this fall in New Orleans, so I’ll use the event as an excuse to revive this blog–famous last words– by reflecting on some reading I’m doing in preparation. Broadly speaking, since we’ve done a lot of work in this area at Messiah College I’ve been asked to talk on how humanities can connect to career preparation as part of a conference that focuses on connecting mission and post-baccaluareate success.

Sometimes I admit that I think these kinds of discussions end up being far too narrowly cast for my taste;  humanists concede that we must do something to address our current and never-ending crisis or crises, and so we talk about career preparation as if it is a concession, something that we will do if we have to do it as long as we can keep doing the idealistic things that we have always done.  Or else something that we will do for the moment even as we look nostalgically to the past or longingly for a future in which the economy is better, our budgets are sound, our classrooms are burgeoning.  On this view, humanities faculty engaging with career preparation is a necessary evil or a pragmatic necessity, but it never really gets to the root of or affects a fundamental understanding of what the humanities are about.  As an administrator, I admit that I have become pretty pragmatic and willing to put up with more than my share of necessary evils.  Nevertheless, I confess that I find this view of engagement with student careers as seriously wanting and deficient.

I think that the halcyon days of yore are not returning, and even if they did it might not actually be all that great a thing.  Rather, I want to believe we are about at Messiah College–when we do curricular revision to include more attention to career concerns, or when we have more training of faculty advisors to address vocational issues,when we work to connect internships, service learning, and other forms of experiential learning directly to our liberal arts course work, or when we begin new projects in the digital humanities–What I want to believe we are about is creating a humanities for the 21st century.

In this, I resonate sympathetically when I read Cathy Davidson, or hear her speak as I did last year at the CIC conference in Pittsburgh.  Davidson’s ruling metaphor, it seems to me, is that our current forms of education, even humanities education, are appropriate to an industrial era, but that we have yet to develop an education appropriate to our own era.

I read again this afternoon her essay on these issues from Academe a few years back, Strangers on a Train.  A passage that particularly stuck out:

If you look at the curriculum in most humanities departments, you would barely notice that there is a crisis and there has been one for decades. At most colleges and universities, humanities departments continue to have a hierarchy of requirements and teaching assignments that imply that the department’s chief mission is to train students for professional careers in the humanities. Most humanities departments do not seem designed to prepare students for any and all careers, including in the sciences, even though all careers require reading, writing, critical thinking, theoretical analysis, historical perspective, and cross-cultural knowledge.

Davidson rightly points out that one consequence of mass education as we have come to know it is that liberal arts programs  have tended to become pre-professional in their orientation, but in a bad or deleterious sense.  That is, we think mostly that we are preparing future graduate students in the humanities, or we organize our curricula as if we are doing that.  Davidson’s essay is a clarion call, if a somewhat unspecific one, to get beyond this form of the humanities for a broader-based approach to the vocational needs of the contemporary students.  Ironically, it seems to me, this might ultimately make our humanities programs more genuinely liberal arts programs, designed broadly rather than for discipline specific expertise.

The one issue that I think Davidson doesn’t address here is one that I think leaves humanities programs resistant to change along the lines Davidson seems to be envisioning.  That is, so long as we argue that humanities programs are the best preparation for a flexible career in the future, that we give students superior skills in communication and analysis, that statistics show our students do relatively well in the job market overall, it becomes unclear why the pre-graduate-school model needs to change.  I have heard this argument stated eloquently.  “Yes, we prepare you so you can go to graduate school;  but if you don’t you’ve been prepared for everything else as well because of all the great communication skills we’ve given you.”

I don’t actually agree with this argument, but it is a genuine argument.  Where it falls short, I think, is in an overconfidence that our students know how to translate knowledge between fields of practice.  This is, I think, a false assumption.  Conversations with business and career development professionals over the past four or five years have convinced me that humanities students regularly and commonly struggle to be able to articulate the relationship between what they have done with their education and the needs of employers.  As I have put it in the past, we broaden our students’ horizons admirably, but we resist teaching them how to walk in to those horizons, or don’t even think to do so.  Indeed, in the worst case, where professors or departments give students only non-instrumental arguments for their fields–“this is inherently worth studying”–we implicitly teach students that they positively should not make connections between their academic fields and some other pathway or endeavor.  Students then not only do not receive practice in applying their knowledge,  they not only are left inarticulate about other career directions, they can come to feel unconsciously that it is inappropriate for them to do so.  I have had students–STUDENTS!–say to me, “I know we aren’t supposed to worry about whether humanities major X connects to a job, but….”

Fortunately, this kind of statement is becoming increasingly rare at Messiah College.  Whatever a humanities program for the 21st century should look like, outcomes ought to include that students have had practice applying their program of study to non-academic work environments, and that students can effectively and shamelessly articulate the value of their program of study in the humanities to future employers.

A podcast of Cathy Davidson’s talk to the CIC, “Educating Students for Their Future, Not Our Past,” is available here.

The Slide show from her presentation is available here.

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What is a liberal art: Elizabeth Stone on the vocation vs. vocational in higher education

This summer I’m working sporadically on what I hope will turn in to a paper on Critical Vocationalism for the NEMLA session that I hope will be draw some substantial proposals for next year’s conference in Harrisburg. Trying to get my brain around exactly what Gerald Graff and Paul Jay might mean by Critical Vocationalism since they leave the term underdefined in their own advocacy for the idea as a new defense for the humanities and the liberal art. To that end I read Elizabeth Stone’s essay on the conflict between vocation and vocationalism published a few years back in the Chronicle. I’m struck by the fact of how we seem to be stuck in a holding pattern, with nothing really advancing or changing in our discourse about the liberal arts in general and the humanities specifically, with the possible exception that we must now lament that the rate of debt our students are carrying has more than doubled in a decade.

Stone’s essay does point out some dimensions of the problem that I do think are important to keep trying to talk about. For instance, she points out that we are not just having an enrollment crisis in the liberal arts, we are having a crisis of definition. What are the liberal arts and why are they that instead of something else. For Stone:

<blockquote>So, platonically speaking, I don’t really know what a liberal art is (although I know it’s not auto mechanics), because there seems to be no single characteristic — old, new, theoretical, vocational, quantitative, qualitative, a matter of content, a matter of perspective — common to all liberal arts.

In practice, then, a liberal art is a little like obscenity. We faculty members know it when we see it, even if we can’t quite define it. But there isn’t anything approaching consensus. Because I’m a parent — of one son with a new B.A. and another who’s now a freshman at a liberal-arts college — I’ve seen more than my share of college catalogs over the past half-dozen years. All of them assert the value of the liberal arts, but at some colleges that includes computer science, industrial design, physical education, and even engineering.

If you are a pragmatist, as I tend to be in my weaker moments, this could strike you as merely a self-serving argumentative move. Since “liberal arts” tends to be defined differently in different periods of history and even in different institutional contexts, they must not really be anything at all. In my own College the Humanities–traditional and sometimes sole remaining bastion of the liberal arts–are defined to include not only Philosophy, History, and English (uncontroversial), but also Religion (unconventional but still uncontroversial), Biblical studies and Film production ( a number of raised eyebrows) and programs like Public Relations, Christian Ministries, and Chinese Business and Spanish Business (pandemonium). The Platonist suggests that if there is no essence that unites these disparate fields then there is no there there, no thing that we can call the liberal arts as opposed to any other thing.

I’m not really interested in answering this question, though I will say I am more interested in Wittgenstein’s notion of family resemblances than in Plato’s forms. What Stone makes clear is that in the absence of any defining essence, the liberal arts largely define themselves by what they are against or what they are not–a version of Aquinas’s theological via negativa for defining God only by saying what God is not, just as most of us build our identities by aversion to our evil others. That evil other for the liberal arts is usually vocationalism. Over and against our money grubbing brethren interested in mere vocationalism we posit the higher order values of vocation, of calling, of transcendent value, or at least of critical thinking.

The problem with this according to Stone is that we don’t have to probe very deeply beneath the skin of what we call the liberal arts to discover an always already fallen vocationalism in who we are and what we do.

<blockquote>Since it’s people like me who are often seen fretting that the liberal arts are being waylaid by the thugs of Mammon, I think it’s time that people like me acknowledged our own dirty little secret. I’ll go first and admit that I, for one, have an unseemly number of vocational courses in my undergraduate past, and the reason is that those courses were directly related to a job I had my eye on: I was a teenage English major, in training to be an English professor.

Stone’s suggestion here strikes me as having two different meanings. First many of our liberal arts disciplines have had vocational ends in some sense, even if that sense was never fully articulated and endlessly deferred. Aquinas’s notion that the liberal arts are things studied for their own sake nevertheless raises the question of why something studied for its own sake should be a required course of study in a society or a seminary. We must admit that the study of most disciplines of the liberal arts have been and were specifically conceived of as appropriate training for young men in order to prepare them for positions of leadership. To be sure, the “higher order” issues of character and spiritual formation have always been around, but young men were explicitly required to pursue studies in these fields in order to prepare for something, specifically to occupy adult roles of leadership as the elites of particular Western Societies. Moreover, some liberal arts as we now conceive of them were not even designed for Elites. My own discipline of English was understood and came in to the academy in England first and foremost as an appropriate course of study in what would have been the equivalent of British community colleges, educational schools for the working classes and for women, even while English was looked down upon by the more cultured classes. So we turn our face away from vocationalism almost like those afraid to recognize their kinship with the adulterated masses.

Also, it seems to me that Stone is suggesting that we ought to recognize that we have increasingly organized our liberal arts curricula around professional (and so vocational) ideals. We have tended for the past few decades to imagine undergraduate education at its best as preparing students for potential graduate study, and have valued most those students who looked just like us, could talk just like us, and wanted to prepare to be just like us. We have accepted a vocational model of education common to the research universities and the professional schools and baptized it in the name of the liberal arts. This fact is why so much of the discussion of a crisis in the humanities is preoccupied with a crisis of graduate students not getting jobs. That is actually a symptom of a much larger crisis that we cannot fully imagine a larger social purpose that doesn’t rely on our self-replication.

What, I wonder, would an education in the liberal arts look like that took it as its explicit task to better prepare students for participation as informed citizens AND as informed workers outside the world of academe. In other words, an education that took as its explicit purpose to produce workers who were not like and do not aspire to be like us. This might be a baseline for critical vocationalism

On being human: Lessons from Harvard Institute for Management and Leadership in Higher Education

In a specific sense I am an unabashed advocate of what has come to be called the applied humanities, roughly and broadly speaking the effort to connect the study of the humanities to identifiable and practical social goods.  For me, in addition it includes the effort to develop humanities programs that take seriously that we are responsible (at least in significant part) for preparing our students for productive lives after college, preparation that I think really should be embedded within humanities curricula, advising, cocurricular programming, and the general ethos and rhetoric that we use to inculcate in our students what it means to be a humanist.

In several respects this conviction lies at the root of my advocacy for both digital humanities programs and for career planning and programming for liberal arts students, as different as these two areas seem to be on the surface.  I have little room left any more for the idea that “real learning” or intellectual work pulls up its skirts to avoid the taint of the marketplace or the hurly-burly of political arenas and that we demonstrate the transcendent value of what we do over and above professional programs by repeatedly demonstrating our irrelevance.  Far from diminishing the humanities, an insistence that what we do has direct and indirect, obvious and not so obvious connections to social value enhances the humanities.  It’s not just a selling point to a doubting public.  As I said yesterday, the only good idea is the idea that can be implemented.  We ought to be proud of the fact that we can show directly how our students succeed in life, how they apply the things they’ve learned, how they find practical ways of making meaningful connections between their academic study and the world of work.

At the same time, I will admit that some versions of this argument leave me cold.  It risks saying that the only thing that is really valuable about the humanities is what is practically relevant to the marketplace. I greet this effort to make Wordsworth a useful version of a management seminar with a queasy stomach.

It may sound like a nice day out in beautiful surroundings, but can walking around Lake District sites synonymous with Romantic poet William Wordsworth really offer business leaders and local entrepreneurs the crucial insights they need?

That is precisely the claim of Wordsworth expert Simon Bainbridge, professor of Romantic studies at Lancaster University, who believes the writer can be viewed as a “management guru” for the 21st century.

Since 2007, the scholar has taken students down into caves and out on canoes to the island on Grasmere once visited by Wordsworth and fellow poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and to places where many of the former’s greatest works were written, for what he called “practical exercises linked to the themes of Wordsworth’s poetry.”

Such walks, which also have been incorporated into development days for individual firms, are now being offered as a stand-alone option for local and social entrepreneurs at a rate of £175 ($274) a day.

Read more: http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2012/08/09/businesses-pay-british-professor-teach-them-about-wordsworth#ixzz236bQaECf 
Inside Higher Ed 

I do not find the insight here wrong so much as sad.  If the only reason we can get people to read Wordsworth is because he will enhance their management skills, we have somehow misplaced a priority, and misunderstood the role that being a manager ought to play in our lives and in the social and economic life of our society.  It is the apparent reduction of all things and all meaning to the marketplace that is to be objected to and which every educational institution worthy of the name ought to furiously resist, not the fact of marketplaces themselves.

I was lucky enough this summer to attend the Harvard Institute for Management and Leadership in Education.  To be honest, I went thinking I was going to get all kinds of advice on things like how to organize projects, how to manage budgets, how to promote programs, how to supervise personnel.  There was some of that to be sure, but what struck me most was that the Institute, under the leadership of Bob Kegan, put a high, even principal, priority on the notion that managers have to first take care of who they are as human beings if they are to be the best people they can be for their colleagues and their institutions.  You have to know your own faults and weakness, your own strengths, your dreams, and you have to have the imagination and strength of mind and heart (and body) to learn to attend to the gifts, and faults and dreams and nightmares of others before or at least simultaneously with your own.  In other words, being a better manager is first and foremost about becoming a healthier, more humane, fuller human being.

The tendency of some applied humanities programs to show the relevance of poetry by showing that it has insights in to management techniques, or the relevance of philosophy because it will help you write a better project proposal, is to misplace causes and to turn the human work of another imagination (in this case Wordsworth) into an instrumental opportunity.  The reason for reading Wordsworth, first and foremost, is because Wordsworth is worth reading, and simultaneously because the encounter with Wordsworth will give you the opportunity to be a fuller, more imaginative, more thoughtful human being than you were before.

If you become that, you will have a chance to be a better manager.  But even if you don’t become a better manager, or if you lose your job because your company is overtaken by Bain capital or because students no longer choose to afford your pricey education, you will, nonetheless, be richer.

Dumpster Diving and other career moves: remembering the job market with Roger Whitson

It would be hard to say I enjoyed reading Roger Whitson’s very fine recent meditation in the Chronicle on the quest for a tenure-track job, his ambivalent feelings on finding one, the mixed feelings of exaltation and guilt at getting what so many of his peers would never find, and of leaving behind an #Altac existence where he had begun to make a home.

Hard to enjoy reading both because the story seems to typify what our academic life has actually become, and, frankly, because it reminded me too much of my own wandering years as a new academic a couple of decades ago.  I spent seven years full-time on the job market back in the day (if you count the last two years of graduate school).  I have estimated in the past that I must have applied for at least 700-800 jobs during those years–the idea of being targeted and selective a joke for a new father.  Fortunately I was actually only totally unemployed for four months during those years, though that was enough to plunge me thousands of dollars in to debt paying for health insurance.  For five of those seven years I had full-time work in various visiting assistant positions, and for two of  those visiting years I was paid so little I qualified for food stamps, though I never applied for the program.  I worked as many extra courses as I could to pay the bills–probably foolish for my career since publishing slowed to a crawl, but it saved my pride.  I remember asking, naively, during an interview for one such visiting position whether it was actually possible to live in that area of the country on what I was going to be paid.  The chair interviewing me at the time hesitated, then responded, “Well, of course, your wife can work.”

Only one of those years did I not get an interview, and only two of those years did I not get a campus interview, but even then this seemed like a very peculiar and unhelpful way to claim success for a beginning academic career.  We did not have anything called #altac in those days, and my plan B–which on my worst days I sometimes still wonder whether I should have followed–was to go back to cooking school and become a chef (I know, I know.  Another growth industry).  I never felt bad about pursuing a PhD in English, and I don’t think I would have even if I had gone on to become a chef.  The learning was worth it, to me, at least.

But I did grow distant from college friends who became vice-presidents of companies or doctors in growing practices , all of whom talked about their mortgages and vacations in the Caribbean or Colorado, while I was living in the cheapest 2 bedroom apartment in Fairfax Virginia that I could find and fishing furniture, including my daughter’s first bed, out of a dumpster.  (The furniture was held together, literally, by duct tape; I had to pay for conferences). And I spent a lot of evenings walking off my anxiety through the park next to our apartment complex, reminding myself of how much I had to be thankful for.  After all, I had a job and could pay my bills through the creative juggling of credit card balances. A lot of my friends had found no jobs at all.  A low rent comparison, I realize, but I would take what solace I could get.

I do not resent those days now, but that depends a lot on my having come out the other side.  The sobering thought in all of this is in realizing that in the world of academics today I should count myself one of the lucky ones.  Reading Roger’s essay, and the many like it that have been published in the last twenty years, I always get a sick hollow feeling in the gut, remembering what it was like to wonder what would happen if….

Reading Roger’s essay I was struck again with the fact that this is now the permanent condition of academic life in the humanities.  My own job story began more than 20 years ago at Duke, and even then we were told that the job market had been miserable for 15 years (but was sure to get better by and by).  30 years is not a temporary downturn or academic recession.  It is a way of being.

The advent of MOOC’s, all-online education, and for-profit universities, are responses to the economics of higher education that are unlikely to make things any better for the freshly minted PhD.  While there are some exciting innovations here that have a lot of promise for increasing learning to the many, it’s also the case that they are attractive and draw interest because they promise to do it more cheaply, which in the world of higher education means teaching more students with fewer faculty hours.  Roger’s most powerful line came toward the end:  “Until we realize that we are all contingent, we are all #altac, we all need to be flexible, and we are all in this together, we won’t be able to effectively deal with the crisis in the humanities with anything other than guilt.”

This is right, it seems to me.  In a world that is changing as rapidly and as radically as higher education, we are all as contingent the reporters and editors in the newsrooms of proud daily newspapers.  It is easy to say that the person who “made it” was talented enough or smart enough or savvy enough, but mostly they, I, we were just lucky enough to come out the other side.  But we would be misguided to imagine that because we made it in to a world that at least resembled the world we imagined, that that world will always be there.  We are an older institution and industry than music or radio or newspapers, but we are an industry and an institution nonetheless, and it seems to me that the change is upon us.  We are all contingent now.

Why students of the Humanities should look for jobs in Silicon Valley

Ok, I’ll risk sounding like a broken record to say again that the notion that humanities students are ill-positioned for solid careers after college is simply misguided.  It still bears repeating.  This latest from Vivek Wadhwa at the Washington Post gives yet more confirmation of the notion that employers are not looking for specific majors but for skills and abilities and creativity, and that package can come with any major whatsoever, and it often comes with students in the humanities and social sciences.

Using Damon Horowitz, who possess degrees in both philosophy and engineering and whose unofficial title at Google is In-House Philosopher and whose official title is Director of Engineering, Wadhwa points out the deep need for humanities and social science students in the work of technology companies, a need that isn’t just special pleading from a humanist but is made vivid in the actual hiring practices of Silicon Valley companies.

Venture Capitalists often express disdain for startup CEOs who are not engineers. Silicon Valley parents send their kids to college expecting them to major in a science, technology, engineering or math (STEM) discipline. The theory goes as follows: STEM degree holders will get higher pay upon graduation and get a leg up in the career sprint.

The trouble is that theory is wrong. In 2008, my research team at Duke and Harvard surveyed 652 U.S.-born chief executive officers and heads of product engineering at 502 technology companies. We found that they tended to be highly educated: 92 percent held bachelor’s degrees, and 47 percent held higher degrees. But only 37 percent held degrees in engineering or computer technology, and just two percent held them in mathematics. The rest have degrees in fields as diverse as business, accounting, finance, healthcare, arts and the humanities.

Yes, gaining a degree made a big difference in the sales and employment of the company that a founder started. But the field that the degree was in was not a significant factor. ….

I’d take that a step further. I believe humanity majors make the best project managers, the best product managers, and, ultimately, the most visionary technology leaders. The reason is simple. Technologists and engineers focus on features and too often get wrapped up in elements that may be cool for geeks but are useless for most people. In contrast, humanities majors can more easily focus on people and how they interact with technology. A history major who has studied the Enlightment or the rise and fall of the Roman Empire may be more likely to understand the human elements of technology and how ease of use and design can be the difference between an interesting historical footnote and a world-changing technology. 

via Why Silicon Valley needs humanities PhDs – The Washington Post.

Again, at the risk of sounding like a broken record, this sounds like the kind of findings emphasized at the Rethinking Success Conference that I have now blogged on several times.    (I’ve heard theories that people come to be true believers if they hear a story 40 times.  So far I’ve only blogged on this 12 times, so I’ll keep going for a while longer).  Although I still doubt that it would be a good thing for a philosopher to go to Silicon Valley with no tech experience whatsoever,  a philosopher who had prepared himself by acquiring some basic technical skills alongside of his philosophy degree might be in a particularly good position indeed.  Worth considering.

Side note,  the Post article points to a nice little bio about Damon Horowitz.  I suspect there are not many folks in Silicon Valley who can talk about the ethics of tech products in terms that invoke Kant and John Stuart Mill.  Maybe there should be more.

Celebrating the liberal arts in the marketplace (cautiously)

A new survey of 225 employers just out emphasizes the continuing value of the liberal arts in the employment market.

More interesting, at least for those of us who got some parental grief over our college choice, was the apparent love being shown for liberal arts majors. Thirty percent of surveyed employers said they were recruiting liberal arts types, second only to the 34 percent who said they were going after engineering and computer information systems majors. Trailing were finance and accounting majors, as only 18 percent of employers said they were recruiting targets.

“The No. 1 skill that employers are looking for are communication skills and liberal arts students who take classes in writing and speaking,” said Dan Schawbel, founder of Millennial Branding and an expert on Generation Y. “They need to become good communicators in order to graduate with a liberal arts degree. Companies are looking for soft skills over hard skills now because hard skills can be learned, while soft skills need to be developed.”

via Survey On Millennial Hiring Highlights Power Of Liberal Arts – Daily Brief – Portfolio.com.

I don’t particularly like the soft skills/hard skills dichotomy.  However, this fits my general sense, blogged on before, that the hysteria over liberal arts majors lack of employability is, well, hysteria.  Something manufactured by reporters needing something to talk about.

At the same time, I think the somewhat glib and easy tone of this particular article calls for some caution.  Digging in to the statistics provided even in the summary suggests that liberal arts majors need to be supplementing their education with concrete experiences and coursework that will provide a broad panoply of skills and abilities.  50% of employers, for instance, say they are looking for students who held leadership positions on campus, a stat before which even engineers and computer scientist but kneel in obeisance.  Similarly, nearly 69% say they are looking for coursework relevant to the position you are pursuing.  My general sense is you can sell you Shakespeare course to a lot of employers, but it might be helpful if you sold Shakespeare along side the website you built for the course or alongside the three courses you took in computer programming.

Generally speaking, then, I think these statistics confirm the ideas propounded by the Rethinking Success conference in suggesting that students really need to be developing themselves as T-shaped candidates for positions, broad and deep, with a variety of skills and experiences to draw on and some level of expertise that has been, preferably, demonstrated through experiences like internships or project-based creativity.

Speaking of Rethinking Success, the entire website is now up with all the relevant videos.  The session with Philip Gardner from Michigan State is embedded below.  It was Gardner who impressed me by his emphasis that students need to realize that they either need to be liberal arts students with technical skills or technical students with liberal arts skills if they are going to have a chance in the current job market.

Should we have college majors at all?

As I’ve suggested before, One of the more startling pronouncements at the Rethinking Success conference last month came from Stanton Green at Monmouth University, in my memory pounding the table and saying that the college major was the worst thing to happen in higher education in the past 150 years.  I’ve thought for a while that a real negative of our current system is the emphasis we put on students selecting a major even before they get to college–a practice driven largely by the need of large professional programs to get students started on their careers from the first semester.

Jeff Seligo at the Chronicle has an interesting blog post this morning on what exactly students think about all the revolution and transformation talk that’s going on in higher ed.  He picks up on this question of the importance of the major, finding anecdotally at least that students are less convinced of the importance of the major than we are:

Majors don’t matter. Perhaps a better question is why we force students to pick a major at all. The number of majors on campus has proliferated in the last two decades, but some academics, such as Mark Taylor or Roger Schank, think we should abolish our traditional notion of majors and build the undergraduate curriculum around broad ideas or problems we face, like water and food production.

Sure, some of the students I talked with were focused on pursuing a specific profession (marketing, for instance) and wanted a degree that would give them a skill set to secure the right internships that eventually would lead to a full-time job. But most of the students said they were less concerned with picking the right major than they were with choosing the classes that would expose them to new subjects or help them connect ideas across disciplines.

via Did Anyone Ask the Students?, Part I – Next – The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Of course, getting rid of the college major would require a massive transformation of what it meant to be a college, not just a college student, and moving away from a narrowly defined research or professionally oriented definition of your major.  There’s no sign yet that we would be willing to do that or that prospective students would respond well to a college that did away with majors entirely.

Even Seligo seems inconsistent on this point since just prior to this point about the unimportance of majors, Seligo says we need to have much more intense levels of career preparation in college so that students can not waste time figuring out what they want to do and what they should major in.  How these two assertions get in paragraphs that sit next to each other, I’m not entirely sure, but it may just signal the confusion we have over recognizing that except in some very specific circumstances majors don’t matter as much as we think they do, but we still somehow can only imagine a college education as a preparation for a specific career.

Maybe if we would think of college as preparing students to blaze a trail for their own professional and personal journey instead of following a career path that is predetermined, we’d be able to relieve ourselves of the belief that students need to figure out what they are going to do with their lives when they are 17 and forever after their fates will be determined by a choice made in ignorance by students who cannot possibly know the kinds of people they will be or the opportunities they will have when they are 22, much less 32 or 52.

So I wonder whether readers of this blog think its possible to imagine a world of higher education in which majors don’t exist?