Our Universities: It’s Jobs, Stupid

Universities should be sharply focused on academic excellence and helping students develop the power to think.  Thinking and doing creates value.  And jobs follow like a “shadow on dry thirsty land.”  Employment will be a place of refuge for thought and action — not a guarantee or an accoutrement — contributing to the essence of a person when accompanied by the ability and freedom to work.

“The most important kind of freedom is to be what you really are. You trade in your reality for a role. You give up your ability to feel, and in exchange, put on a mask.”

Jim Morrison

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Invariably when someone comments about the current state of higher education and its seemingly pale performance evidenced in the production of junk degrees and graduates ill-prepared for work, the sneered response from my confederates is, “Oh, so the University exists to provide people jobs?”

Not for a nano-second. However, if the university cannot produce people capable of performing valuable work, it has failed.  Higher education’s nanny complex is a fabrication of Mad Men caricatures trying to make institutions appear valuable.  When students learn to think, the power to perform and compete is not far behind. Work, not meal tickets, is the goal.

Good universities are economic engines because students graduate with ability. An open society operates through Smith’s “invisible hand of the marketplace.” People who can think and do in the pressure cooker of the market have social and economic value as their skills and abilities help create well-functioning communities. They can work.

Accepting the concept that an education is a guarantee of employability is a mistake and demeans the significance of ability and insight. A good education always leads to employability whether developed through Chaucer or commerce, philosophy or physics, engineering or sociology.  Thinking, productive people are a university’s currency.

Graduates running about waving a certificate claiming “I have an education!” may have been misled by the university, elected officials, ignorance or “Me” magazine. What the holder possesses is an increasingly expensive, heavily mortgaged document guaranteeing little or nothing — to everyone’s dismay — especially those poor souls racked with debt.

Universities, their leaders, and graduates, like football coaches, are judged by their record. A coach is not evaluated by the number of first downs, fumbles lost or recovered, yards gained or lost, the size of the stadium, the attendance records, or anything else related to the game.  It’s the won-lost record. (I want to say stupid but I don’t like that word.)  Performance clarity exists in universities, and the best indicator is an honest and willing appraisal of a progeny’s ability to work.

The Economist ran a story last week under the heading, “Is College Worth it?”  The top 10 universities when measured by return on investment from graduates over a 20-year period are without surprise.  They are the best academic institutions on the planet, some you haven’t heard of, and their graduates can think and do and perform work.

“It’s the jobs, stupid,” to borrow a bit from James Carville, Clinton’s main campaign adviser, who developed the “It’s the economy, stupid” mantra used to deny President George H.W. Bush a second term.

Likewise, the won-lost record for universities is jobs.  Not finagling statistics to create impressions, but the ultimate measure of value — meaningful work.  When students are challenged by adroit faculty who themselves produce knowledge and insight and share it with aspiring minds, graduates have an offering to make at the altar of the marketplace.

Students suffer when pabulum is tolerated and degrees are doled out like candy because people pay tuition. Intellectual perspective is not developed, adhered to, and nurtured.  Work is a far-off concept.   Universities fail because indoctrination to a blithely accepted mindset that the degree is a meal ticket prevails.

Proselytization perhaps, but not enduring education.

People with purposeful educational experiences buck the trend in the harsh light of the marketplace and in the quiet light of their daily lives. Numerous educators fear education, pandering to predisposition rather than seeing students as the future workers of a free society. Chaucer, physics, humanities, engineering, the arts, all have value when studied in earnest and results are worked for. The subject matter matters not, but working for any positive result has great value.

Effective universities create jobs because they create people who have the audacity to think clearly and freely. If at any time that free inquiry leads to socialization rather than insight and ability, the student and the university have failed.

Our universities need commitment to the development of thinking and doing capacity in graduates. The question of worth will answer itself in a shift from certified attendance to demonstrated ability.

Able workers win.