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Labor Day — A Good Time to Reflect on the Purpose of Education

September 6, 2015

One of the ongoing features of our school’s library is a display of materials that speaks to a certain theme, which we change every month or so. Right now, the theme is Labor Day, with books about labor, unions, and related employment topics. This reminded me of an ongoing debate in higher education, one that is discussed somewhat differently by students and by educators, but it generally has the same main theme: What is the purpose of education, especially higher education?

For many students, and I would suspect an overwhelming number of students at our school, the purpose of their pursuit of higher education is to get a job. Sure, most of them don’t mind learning some other things along the way, but most of them seem largely concerned with how the courses they take (and the assignments they are required to complete in them) will help them get a job once they graduate from school.

On a related side note, I want to mention that our school has gone through a number of fundamental changes over the years of its history–it started as a Business School, with the explicit charge of training its students for their chosen vocations. As the employment landscape changed, fields of study were added and removed (for example, we used to have a Travel and Tourism program), but in recent years we have made the transition from Business School to College. We now award Bachelor’s degrees as well as Associate degrees, and more recently we added a Master’s program. Our latest curricular additions have been in Health Sciences areas. However, we have added both specific career-path programs (preparing students to be OTAs or PTAs) and career enhancement programs (Bachelor of Health Sciences programs which have primary goals of helping already-trained professionals to advance to supervisory and management positions.)  We continue to offer degree programs which correlate strongly with specific careers paths (such as criminal justice, legal studies, and medical assisting) in addition to business and communications programs.

So…here at the start of the 2015-16 school year, as we deal with the lingering effects of the Great Recession and what seem to be ever-increasing higher education costs–what do we say to those who question the value of higher education? Those asking the loudest are especially interested in why students are almost always required to take classes in multiple disciplines instead of only taking classes devoted to their chosen major and/or field of study. Why do medical assisting students at my school need to take English and social sciences classes? Why does a music education major at my alma mater (a liberal arts college) need to take a science class?  In our positions as librarians, I believe we are well-situated to help students with a good answer to this. Since we are not the direct instructors of their English/science/history classes, students often complain to us about not understanding why they need this class (when they’re asking for our help with research or in-text citations). First, we can help them to realize that part of the reason they might not excel at these ‘other’ types of classes is because the subject is not only foreign but the ways of thinking about these ‘other’ subjects is different than how they think regarding their chosen field. Taking these classes outside their comfort zone can help them develop different types of thinking–and different types of skills. And for almost any job a student might look for in the future, their prospective employer is going to need them to not only be able to perform their technical job functions–they’ll also need them to perform well at soft skills such as communication, teamwork, and problem solving.

Well-rounded curricula produce well-rounded students–who become well-rounded, productive employees. (That’s the master plan, anyway, in my opinion at least.)  When my next student asks, why do I need to take a history class, I’m an IT major? I’ll respond: classes such as history will help you think in different ways–and being able to think in different ways will help you get and keep a better job.

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