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The Value of Higher Education is More Than Getting a Job

by Justin Marquis Ph.D.

Lost amid the strident voices for higher education accountability and lower costs is the very real fact that we are on a dangerous trajectory that is potentially robbing our students of one of the most important aspects of the college experience – the development of intellectualism.

I understand the realities of the world and the capitalist economy we live in as well as anyone. Students want jobs after graduation. In fact, if they are going to survive outside of their parents’ homes, it is imperative that they find employment soon after receiving their diploma. As a liberal arts graduate who worked several retail management jobs immediately out of college, I can attest to two things. My undergraduate English and Religious Studies majors did not get me a job. But my liberal arts background and the intellectualism that it promoted did prepare me for a lifetime of learning and a variety of possible career paths. The latter of these two facts should not be undervalued in a hyper-connected global world where the career you prepared for as a student may already have become defunct by the time you graduate. Students need to be prepared for a rapidly changing world, and they need to be trained to be self-motivated learners who are capable of adapting to new skills, positions, or even entire new disciplines if they are going to be successful after graduation.

Value in the Intangibles
A major in business, accounting, forensics, nursing, or any other field with a direct work focused outcome can certainly help with short-term job prospects for college students; however, such a tight focus may actually leave you on the outside looking in during the next economic slowdown or when that career becomes passé. Having an innate intellectual curiosity – a desire to explore and learn new things – can help you to either never become obsolete, or to more easily transition to a new career should the need arise. Additionally, many employers are now emphasizing hiring employees who are self-motivating, can communicate virtually, adapt to new technology on the fly, and think critically about problems encountered on the job, as well as those who are motivated to expand the job as new opportunities arise. College, and specifically those pesky core/distribution requirements, are exactly the places to cultivate these skills.

Cultivate Soft Skills
You may ask why any of these skills would be more effectively acquired in a class outside of your major than within it? That certainly does not need to be the case, but pursuing a variety of interests with vigor and rigor opens up more opportunities to cultivate these abilities than does a strict focus on one area. Here’s how to bolster the skills that will help you navigate a changing global economy, along with tips for achieving each:

  • Intellectual Curiosity: The more things that you know about in this world, the more opportunities you have to learn about other fascinating topics. What is even more important is that there are often linkages between disciplines that are seldom or have never been considered. As a well-rounded learner who is intellectually curious, you have an opportunity to explore new and innovative connections between topics and to embark on a new and exciting "Edventure" that few others may have even imagined. Embrace new subjects. Don’t think of that required philosophy class as a burden, but rather as an opportunity to learn something new. In the case of philosophy, if you are a business major for example, think of it as a way of gaining insight into human motivation or as fuel for some future advertisement of a product that aims to reach intellectuals. Take your intended career focus and apply it to what you are learning in the seemingly non-related course. You’ll add valuable insights to the class discussion and fortify your own budding intellectualism along the way.
  • Self-motivation: Every student has been in the course that they just weren’t interested in. It happens. Rather than dread the class, tune out, or blow it off altogether, immerse yourself in it. You can become interested in anything if you give it a chance and engage in learning rather than complaining. The concept of mind over matter is not just a cliché. If you persist at something and really put in an effort to learn the fundamental concepts, eventually you will find that you actually have an interest in the subject. You never know, you might even develop a new career interest. Consider this training for when you finally enter the workforce. Not every job or assignment is going to be inherently interesting to you. If you have practiced being able to motivate yourself in college, you will be prepared when the stakes are raised.
  • Virtual Communication: Consider filling some of those electives or science requirements with a computer science or digital media production class. By applying your intellectual curiosity and self-motivational abilities, you will be able to engage in classes that can open up the doorway to understanding how our digital world works. You can gain insights into the Internet, social media, or programming that will improve your overall technology literacy and thus greatly enhance your ability to communicate in whatever new mediums may arise in the future.
  • Adaptability: Taking classes outside of your comfort zone and striving to be self-motivated will make you a more adaptable learner. Different disciplines have different teaching methodologies, different citation standards, different expectations of student work, and even different languages or jargon. Being able to adapt to any of these circumstances trains your brain to not only be able to do it in the future, but to crave the challenge. If you can apply that ability throughout your life, you will never stop learning and growing as a person, and an employee.
  • Critical Thinking: College is about challenging your perceptions of reality. There is no better way to do this than to open your mind to the differing perspectives of the world offered by different disciplines. I remember something a philosophy professor once told us, "Even if you and a lion both spoke English, you couldn’t understand each other because your frames of reference on the world are so dramatically different." As a participant in a wide variety of courses you are learning to communicate with others who may have a different world view. Open yourself up to those ideas, take the time to have critical discussions and to challenge your own assumptions of how the world works and you will be well on your way to being the kind of person who can think beyond an immediate solution to solve problems in ways never before imagined.
  • Think Interdisciplinarily: Finally, there really are connections between all disciplines that often go unnoticed or that are disregarded. Innovative individuals who can think broadly across disciplines can see these connections and use their critical thinking abilities to envision new possibilities that these connections present. This is how new disciplines and fields of inquiry like nanotechnology, neuroscience, and 3D printing or molecular manufacturing have begun. Apply all of these ideas and you might be the founder of the next big thing.

Make Your Own Future
All of these suggestions really lead to just one thing. In an increasingly unstable world you have, as Sarah Connor would say, "No fate but what you make." If you can take advantage of the amazing opportunities that a college education offers, not for job training, but for life training, you will help to ensure that, no matter what the world throws at you, you will be able to adapt and turn your challenges into opportunities. Start thinking about those required classes outside of your area not as a burden, but as a chance to help future-proof education and yourself.

Image courtesy of Salvatore Vuono / FreeDigitalPhotos.net