Deneen On College-As-Employment Credential

Our friend Patrick Deneen of Georgetown posted an evocative comment today on an Inside Higher Ed item concerning the President’s hopes for higher education as a source of job creation. It’s very much worth a read.

The nation’s universities have already implicitly justified their existence – and expense – to a generation or more of students that the main reason for attending university is to attain the necessary credential for potential employers. Universities uniformly have one devoted office or center that is dedicated to helping students make the transition into post-graduate life, namely and inevitably a “Career Services Center” (by contrast, there is no “Family Preparation” or “Transition to Being a Citizen and Neighbor” centers). Understanding well this implicit promise, alumni have begun suing their alma maters when their post-graduate job search has proven unsuccessful, and many believe such lawsuits to be anything but unjustified or frivolous.
The President is doing great damage in his constant reiteration of the view that our universities and colleges should be seen solely as places of job preparation. This can only deepen the pervasive careerism that pervades our institutions of higher education.
Our universities and colleges were once devoted to the ideals of the “liberal arts.” The liberal arts were oriented to teaching its students the art of being free, the art of attaining liberty. That art is above all the art of self-government, the art of learning the bounds of what is appropriate for human beings. Moreover, necessarily such an undertaking was an education in citizenship, the hallmark of the person educated for liberty (not bondage). By necessity, such an education oriented its charges toward res publica, toward public dedications that transcended narrowly private interest.
The current emphasis on “career preparation” is a profound betrayal of this ideal of the liberal arts. This emphasis elicits in two simultaneous dispositions among students: a utilitarian worldview that views all aspects of education as means for one purpose – a job, or more narrowly, “money-making” – and the transformation of the object of education of one devoted to commonweal to narrowly private interest.
The President has spoken on occasion in tones of moral condemnation over the behavior that precipitated the economic crisis, yet out of the other side of his mouth further promotes the mindset – and an educational emphasis – that would only deepen the preconditions that led to the economic crisis. A people formed with dedicated devotion to utilitarian and narrowly financial calculation, combined with extreme privatism of orientation, is the fertile ground from which just such financial chicanery and irresponsible indebtedness arises. Does he not have a sensible and liberally educated advisor in his circle that help him come to this realization? Given how many of his advisors come from our “elite” institutions – the Princetons, Harvards and Yales of the nation – and how deeply the orientation of these institutions has for a long time been precisely guided by such narrowly and perversely utilitarian and careerist aims, there can be little hope that he can be dissuaded from his mission of further destroying our institutions of higher learning. Perhaps it’s time for him to tap someone from a St. John’s College in order at least to provide a somewhat different take on matters, for a change.

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Anthony Paletta

Anthony Paletta is a freelance writer.

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