During my undergraduate years, one subject captured my heart: sociology. My dad felt differently. Like the good Indian engineer father he is, he insisted that I study “something practical.” My solution? I worked my behind off for a double major in sociology and economics. Most importantly for 19-year-old me, it satisfied the man with the checkbook. But it also gave me a set of skills—from market analysis to multicultural awareness—that I have used again and again in my career helping colleges around the world. Dad, you were right all along!
Someone else who knows a thing or two about Indian dads (being himself a Mumbai native and a father) is the writer Fareed Zakaria. In his book In Defense of a Liberal Education, Zakaria shows how a similar “do something practical” attitude, taken to extremes, has translated into a movement to rid U.S. colleges of allegedly “useless” liberal arts subject—like sociology—in favor of those seen as teaching more work-ready skills, like computer science.
The good news is that this is a false dichotomy. The more challenging news is that colleges urgently need to do a better job incorporating both types of teaching into their curricula.
In the past, I have advocated for colleges to offer seniors experience in the workplace, in exchange for course credit plus an additional certification in some sought-after hard skill, like coding in Java or operating a CRM database. These initiatives help with a vital process we might call “inskilling”—giving students, while still in college, the specific skills they need to launch their careers immediately upon graduation.
However, when looking to build bridges between universities and the workforce, inskilling by itself is not enough. At the current rate of change, any given hard skill is likely to be halfway to obsolescence within four or five years—meaning that, in the course of their working lives, most people will change occupations (not just employers) several times. Michelle Weiss has said that the average Millennial will change jobs 20 times in their career. Therefore, colleges must teach students to be intellectually nimble: to learn the foundational aptitudes they will need in order to learn other, more specific skills further down the line.
Colleges need to stop thinking merely in terms of exposing students to various subjects and start thinking about teaching mastery of critical work-relevant skills—including the all-important “soft skills.” With sociology, it might be clarity of thought and expression. With economics, it may be the ability to look at problems through both micro and macro lenses. Perhaps a course in art history—a topic President Obama famously derided before apologizing for doing so—could teach students to evaluate creative work, an increasingly important skill in today’s knowledge economy.
What if we revamped college curricula in their entirety to reflect such learning opportunities, emphasizing skills over exposure? From this point of view, students’ work placements do double duty. In addition to teaching valuable hard skills, such a placement can be seen as a kind of real-world summative assessment of a student’s meta-skills. How intellectually nimble is the student? In other words, how good is that student at assimilating new skills with the speed required for success in the modern workplace?
Zakaria quotes former Harvard President Drew Faust as saying that college should be about giving graduates skills “that will help them get ready for their sixth job, not their first job.” If I may propose a slight edit, I would change that “not” to an “and”—and add jobs two through five and seven through infinity. Today’s college students will face a huge variety of changes and challenges in their careers. Part of the role of a college should be to make its students intellectually nimble enough to survive and thrive.
- How we built campus affinity and student engagement during COVID - June 22, 2021
- 5 key actions to address inequities in higher education - June 21, 2021
- How higher ed is becoming more resilient - June 18, 2021