Every semester, I stare out at a class full of shocked, appalled and offended faces when I tell my students not to check their grades. Learn the material for the sake of learning, I say. Don’t view it as an obstacle between you and your A, and don’t believe that your letter grade accurately reflects the capabilities of your mind, whether you get A’s or F’s. Students rarely take this well. “But that’s how I operate!” they shoot back. “I’m not motivated if I don’t get all A’s!” And, of course, they ask the inevitable: “Why do I have to learn this? How is any of this important?” For these students, lib ed requirements and the less popular, non-elective classes in any program exist merely to obstruct the path to their goal. In both cases, this frustration stems from one belief: college exists to help them get good jobs.
And for the most part, higher education serves that goal well. Studies show that a state’s average income rises with the education of its citizens. Likewise, people tend to get paid higher salaries if they’ve completed higher levels of education. Employers love educated workers. Go to monster.com, Careerbuilder or GoldPass and look at any job posting; they all ask for educated candidates.
However, many students mistake receiving an education with being trained. Whether an employer wants an educated worker or a trained worker makes a world of difference. Understanding that difference will shed light on why universities push all the “pointless” fluff into the requirements for your major.
When you get trained, someone teaches you how to do something. You focus on the process or the skills involved and hone a small set of skills to mastery. Apprenticeships trained craftsmen this way. Kings and lords would train their children to become warriors. And, unfortunately, we use the term “trained” to describe the monkeys that could perform the mindless tasks involved in our least fulfilling jobs.
While electricians, auto mechanics soldiers, and others possess skills I envy, and they often prevent our infrastructure from crumbling around us, those of us in academia prefer an alternate method of improving our worth. Our talents don’t reside in what we learn in school. Rather, we value the act of learning itself. Here at UMD, you practice the ability to become smarter and to think critically to create your own knowledge; but to do that, you need to understand more about the world than you feel you need to know.
As a musician, perhaps the principles you learned in physics could help you design an instrument with superior acoustics. Perhaps as an engineer, you may be inspired to bring to life the science-fiction devices you read about in your literature class. A researcher in biology might find business and psychology classes incredibly helpful when trying to secure grant money for their projects.
We simply don’t know what information you might put together into something valuable. The entire history of University Educations stems from the desire to push boundaries, develop new wonders and learn things that no one has ever learned before.
Progress has to be cross-disciplinary by nature, an aggregate use of knowledge, so think of your liberal education classes as more important than your major requirements, without which any field of study would stagnate. The goal of higher education aims not to put facts into your heads and send you out to the world, but to give you the knowledge and the tools to use in order to keep learning when you graduate.
That is exactly the skill that employers want. They don’t want to see training — they’d rather train you on their own anyway, to make sure you know exactly how they operate. What they want isn’t someone who already knows how to do the same things they do; they want someone with the mental powers to come up with a better way to do it. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t list degrees as requirements on job applications.
Unfortunately, though, many college graduates don’t have this power. You can’t develop it by squeezing out the bare minimum to get an A, which is the norm for many students. Your teachers can’t offer you the point of knowing what they teach you — you need to figure that out yourself. I often advise my students to relax, stop worrying about grades, and really dig into the material to find something interesting, something that they enjoy simply for the value of knowing it. Nothing you learn can harm you, and every bit of it has value.
BY JAKE LAJEUNESSE firstname.lastname@example.org
ILLUSTRATION BY JOE FRASER.