A majority of college students surveyed say they are going to college to “get a job.” Now, we have to be careful here, since surveys only report back on what survey designers believe is relevant information. Do these surveys of college students ask them about their personal development, unique aspirations, and where college fits into their life plan?
If such options are included among the multiple-choice survey questions, it’s still likely that college students will select “get a job” anyway, and not necessarily because they really believe it.
The education process is generally a boring affair, a gauntlet of bookish instruction, ineffective teaching techniques, and stressful standardized assessments that actually paralyze creative learning.
Given that the academic experience so far hasn’t engaged their interests, passions, talents, or aspirations, why would students expect any difference at the college level? As it has been about passing checkpoints and graduating to the next thing all along, the next thing after college would be a job. Therefore, the ultimate purpose and final aim of education is employment.
If that’s true, we’re all screwed. And if it’s not true but students still believe it is, this can explain why 80 percent of college students change their majors and 50 percent of college graduates get jobs outside their degrees.
If education is just about getting a job, then it’s not working.
In this post I will put a new frame around education, one that acknowledges its usefulness in preparing graduates for productive work in society, but also affirms other priorities which are equally essential, if not more so. Two other priorities in particular must be included in a proper understanding of our topic. All of them together comprise what I’ll call the Three Mandates of Education. To whatever degree our current education process falls short on one or more of these mandates, it isn’t doing its job.
The Cultural Mandate of Education
Instead of starting with the Mandate of Education that aligns, more or less, with today’s widespread belief regarding its purpose, beginning with its Cultural Mandate will help us address the limits of this very belief. With respect to its influence in the management and evolution of human culture, education plays, or should play, the paradoxical roles of conserving tribal customs and spurring social progress.
Today’s depleted and anemic view of education is quickly becoming, if it hasn’t already become, just such a “tribal custom” – referring to an established way of acting, thinking, or regarding the world around us. As more members adopt this way of behavior and belief, it soon becomes inherent to their shared identity. Setting aside any judgment over whether a particular custom is ethically enlightened, its function in conserving and stabilizing a people’s shared identity is essential to every human culture.
However, every human culture is also a living organization, with its own growth dynamic and progression of life-cycles.
In paradoxical opposition to the conservation of cultural identity through traditions of tribal custom, education is also the engine and “propeller” of social progress. From this vantage point, tribal customs should be under constant review for their proper alignment with and relevance to a society’s “growing edges” of diversity, equity, and inclusion. Longstanding customs aren’t necessarily rejected and tossed aside if they happen to lack alignment in this respect.
But a healthy culture must be willing to reconsider, reform, and possibly reject any customs that perpetuate prejudice and resistance to a more ethically enlightened community.
It isn’t obvious to many, but today’s tribal custom or conventional belief, that the only valid purpose of education is to help the graduate “get a job,” is biased against diversity, equity, and inclusion – against social progress. When we factor in the cost of education, the access it requires, and the way standardized assessments favor those students and admissions applicants with a knack for cramming and recalling information on tests, there is little question that our current education process excludes large demographic segments of the population.
The Economic Mandate of Education
Because today’s education system isn’t geared for diversity, equity, and inclusion, we must give it a failing grade – to use its own diagnostic rubric. In essence, education ought to provide the instruction, training, and development that empowers citizens for productive work and gainful employment. Like a responsible parent, a social system needs to provide support to those who are unable or not ready to support themselves, as it empowers the latter to gradually take on more responsibility for themselves.
This Economic Mandate of Education is vital to the health, prosperity, and sustainability of society. In empowering its citizens to become productive members, education literally capitalizes on the talent, creativity, and “workforce” of each generation, while providing them with meaningful avenues for making their own unique contributions to the commonwealth.
Education thus is about much more than “getting a job.”
Instead, it is, or ought to be, about helping students reach vocational clarity: a focused understanding of their unique “calling” (from the Latin vocāre), direction, and purpose in life.
The most reliable clue on the path to vocational clarity is an individual’s interests, which are like the “sun” to an internal “solar system” of other important factors, such as curiosity, desire, passion, talent, and intelligence. To better fulfill its Economic Mandate, education would intentionally and systematically implement a process, beginning already in the late elementary and middle school grades, of assessing each student’s interests.
With this information, instruction could be differentiated and properly “scaffolded” to empower creative learning and talent development.
In high school, this growing vocational clarity could be guided to an understanding of careers and career clusters that best match the student’s interest profile.
By the time they entered college, fewer students would be stuck in the tribal custom of believing that their purpose in being there is to “get a job.” They would instead be focusing their study and training in preparation for a career that will be interesting, purposeful, productive, and fulfilling. With such a process in place from middle school to college, we could confidently expect fewer college students to change majors, and more college graduates to find work aligned with their degrees.
The Humanistic Mandate of Education
Implicit in our reflections on the Cultural and Economic Mandates of Education is a deeper awareness of, and respect for, the student as a human being and not just a data cluster, tracking statistic, or identification number in the system. Of all the mandates, this one is not just in danger of being lost, but has arguably already been entirely forgotten.
What does it mean to acknowledge the student as a human being?
A human being is more than a worker or future employee, and also more than a citizen of society or a member of some tribe. We are admittedly verging on the domain of spirituality here, but it cannot (or shouldn’t) be avoided just because so-called “spirituality” in our day has become this oozy, fringy and far-out collection of free thought.
In the context of education and its Humanistic Mandate, spirituality concerns the inner spirit of a human being and its evolutionary aim of creative authority: personal responsibility, self-transcendence, higher wholeness, and the liberated life.
Creative authority in particular is perhaps the best summary term for the principle that drives, guides, and inspires human fulfillment, and is the proper aim of the New Humanism. It’s not about human exceptionalism or a chauvinistic preference for human interests across the larger Web of Life.
In the New Humanism, “human” and “nature” are honored in their essential unity, “self” and “other” are nurtured in compassionate fellowship, and “body and “soul” are celebrated for their complementary engagement with the provident Universe around us and the grounding Mystery within.
Education literally means “to lead out,” and in this context its mandate is about leading (awaking, activating, empowering, and guiding) the human spirit through its evolutionary path to fulfillment.
In addition to conserving tribal customs and stimulating social progress, but also beyond preparing individuals for productive work and gainful employment, education must honor and serve the human spirit in every student, addressing but also listening to what it has to say.