Lost in the Life of the Mind

 

By BILL COPLIN

 

"Bait and switch" is usually used to describe the sleazy telephone sales rep who starts, "This is your lucky day. You are the winner of a free vacation in the Bahamas." Schnooks take the bait only to find out the hidden costs.

I felt like a schnook after my second week as an undergraduate in 1956 at Washington College in Chestertown, Md. After a year, I transferred to the Johns Hopkins University, where the switch was even more apparent. My parents, relatives, high-school teachers, and guidance counselor had said, "You are college material," so I thought I'd go to college and live happily ever after.

However, I quickly realized that I had been a victim of a gigantic conspiracy on the part of colleges that was unwittingly supported by the rest of society in the name of the American dream, unfettered social mobility. I took the bait that college would lead to a high-paying and rewarding job. Once there, the switch was on.

My role was to please the faculty by showing them I wanted to learn everything they loved to learn. It wasn't until getting my Ph.D. in international relations from American University that I was told by a wise professor, "A college degree and four quarters will get you a dollar."

I thought taking English meant improving my writing skills, that taking Spanish meant that when I went to Mexico I'd be able to converse, that studying history would be an exercise in learning about the past. Wrong on all three counts!

English courses at that time were about appreciating literature. (Now many are about deconstructing text and going off on ideological rants.) Spanish taught language that would permit me to read great Spanish novelists and thinkers, not close a deal. History was a study of the study of history -- discussion, for instance, of Charles Beard's economic interpretation of the Constitution rather than of what the founding fathers actually did.

I was impressed by my English professor's passion and excitement. Wish I could have been as excited about Chaucer, or even figured out what the hell he was saying. If you haven't had the pleasure, here is a short quote out of Bartlett's Familiar Quotations: "feeld hath eyen, and the wode has eres."

The first thing that strikes you is that if you had this on Microsoft Word, there would be red squiggles under half of it. I had to learn a foreign language called 14th-century English. The professor subjected me to this because he was a professional scholar saying, in essence, "Be like me."

I could not blame him for his missionary zeal because that is why he went into academe in the first place, and what his Ph.D. trained him for. However, I was plenty angry at a system that treated all students as if they were in college to learn for the sake of learning when in fact the vast majority wanted college to prepare them for a successful career. I wanted to learn about life; they wanted me to lose myself in the life of the mind.

Not much has changed over the past 48 years, and with devastating results, if a recent conversation I had with Joe, let's call him, is any indication. I met Joe in the late 1980s when he was 12 years old in a program in which my undergraduates worked with at-risk youth. Joe adopted me as his mentor because, despite a serious speech impediment, he liked to argue politics. He didn't want to end up, like many of his friends had, in jail or dead, and he didn't want to be on welfare like his parents were.

However, Joe could not pass the New York State standardized tests required for graduation. He went into the Job Corps, where he got his GED, became a professional house painter, joined the Army, completed basic training at the top of his class, served overseas, and eventually left the military. He decided he wanted to be a policeman and did OK on the civil-service exam.

He called me in 2003 to tell me that he was in a local community college to study criminal justice and get an associate degree. During the course of the conversation, he said, "Coplin, how come I got to learn the MLA, the APA, and the Chicago style? Can't they make up their minds?"

I told Joe that the college curriculum, even at a community college serving students who don't necessarily want to go on to a four-year liberal-arts degree, was designed to prepare professional scholars. Moreover, the inability to select one citation form was evidence that college faculty members can't reach a consensus on even the most trivial of educational goals. I advised him to play the game. He said, "No problem, I learned to do that in the Army."

Joe would have been far better served if he had spent his time learning to write and speak more clearly and with better grammar. It's tempting to dismiss him as an example because of his socioeconomic background and the faults of the public-school system. But poor oral and written communication skills are rampant no matter what the educational background of the student or the ranking of the college.

According to employers, college students are not prepared for the work force because they lack the skills and character needed to succeed. Our best and brightest students might take statistics in college and score A's on the tests that measure their ability to solve some abstract problem about white and black Ping-Pong balls, but cannot figure out how to set up a bar graph to display real-world data. They learn calculus, but they can't make budget projections.

They learn shortcuts to jump the academic hurdles with a minimum of effort, but not much about honesty and work ethic. A director of sales and marketing for a media company wrote me: "What I found from my hiring -- the higher the GPA and the more prestigious the school, the less prepared for the real world the grad was. I was amazed at the basics that these 22- and 23-year-olds lacked. Real basic -- like how about we wake up every day and show up for work on time!"

Liberal-arts leaders have no choice but to continue setting the bait. It's a matter of economic survival. Most students and their parents will pay as much as $160,000 only if they believe a college experience will lead to a better economic future.

The important question is to what degree colleges will deliver what they promise. Teaching critical thinking and fostering intellectual well-roundedness are important goals, but too general and self-serving. Faculties need to take more responsibility for helping students acquire the skills employers want. The list needs to be specific enough so that professors can assess skill levels but general enough so that the skills cut across all academic programs.

Those skills include dependability, attention to detail, teamwork, obtaining and analyzing information, problem solving, and writing clearly. Such a list can be found in my recent book 10 Things Employers Want You to Learn in College. Similar lists can be found in a study in 2002 that the National Association of Colleges and Employers based on surveys of 457 employers, or in work from the early 1990s by the Department of Labor's Secretary's Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills, or in the 2003 Business-Higher Education Forum report, "Building a Nation of Learners."

The focus on general professional skills would allow liberal-arts faculties to have their cake and eat it too. On one hand, they would be free to choose whatever curricular content they want. On the other, they would provide students with the opportunity to practice and improve the skills employers expect. Professors just need to keep their eye on the target and to be as rigorous about students' skills as they are about their own research. Whatever content they teach should be applicable beyond the confines of their disciplines. They can do that by incorporating more fieldwork and active learning into their courses.

For example, students from a class studying The Canterbury Tales could rewrite one of them in a modern setting (active learning) or present one to a 12th-grade English class in a local high school (fieldwork). Instructors teaching methods in various social sciences could require students, as I have since 1979 in my methods course, to complete a client survey for a community agency serving youth.

Liberal-arts professors will have to accept the implicit social contract with their students. They need to treat undergraduates as clients who learn not only from what is said, assigned, and tested, but also from the professor's own behavior. For their part, students must recognize professors' expertise in their subjects, but also their importance as professional-skills coaches. That means seeking constructive criticism rather than worrying only about grades, and working hard to master the material rather than cramming before tests.

Over the past 30 years, service learning, internships, computer-based instruction, team projects, and problem-based interdisciplinary courses have become more widespread. However, they remain the exceptions, helping admissions officers better set the bait. Liberal-arts institutions over all need to embrace a skills perspective to minimize the switch.

 

Professor "Bill" Coplin, Ph.D, teaches at Syracuse University in Syracuse, New York.

 

The Chronicle of Higher Educattion

Volume 51, Issue 2, Page B5