Tall, Dark, and Mysterious

9/17/2004

Jobs are for the little people.

File under: Righteous Indignation, No More Pencils, No More Books, Know Thyself. Posted by Moebius Stripper at 1:53 pm.

Heading back from lunch from the cafeteria the other day, I remembered that university is not job training.

I know for a fact that university is not job training, because lots of people said as much over the past several years, and they’d know: high school teachers, parents, parents of friends, friends of parents, university professors, ministers of education, yadda. University is a place to learn! to enrich yourself! to grow as a person! Which was fine with me, because I liked to learn and I was all about enriching myself and growing as a person. And sure enough, after however many years of postsecondary education, there was no earthly way I could have mistaken my abstract meanderings in pure mathematics or my readings in philosophy for any sort of job training. I had jobs during university, to be sure, and I earned procured those jobs through the co-op program at my alma mater, and I would not have been hired if I hadn’t been enrolled in The Very Best Place To Study Math In Canada, but it’s not like the actual classes I was taking at TVBPTSMIC were in any way preparing me for those jobs. They weren’t. I credit the stars and the planets for my good fortune: I turned 19, and then 20, and then 21 before the high-tech industry crashed and burned, way way back when every company with a computer was lining up to pay some inexperienced student to design a database or to document the database that the last student designed.

University was not job training, we were told by our elders, baby boomers and their parents who - by choice or by fate - may or may not have enriched themselves or learned for the sake of learning or grown as people, but who in any case could safely extol the virtues of above because they had jobs. Not to mention job security, that elusive prize that those of us born in the 70’s and after have virtually no concept of. We might, if we could find employment in our own fields - another concept foreign to us.

I’m employed in my own field, but I don’t expect to be indefinitely, in part because I bore easily and anticipate that I’ll be looking for a change sometime soon. Virtually no one my age I know is employed in their field of study. Why should they be? University, after all, is not job training. The notion of being employed in one’s field of study is practically a contradiction in terms.

Around halfway through graduate school I found myself thinking that it would be nice if one day I could actually have a job. I mentioned this to my officemate, who looked at me askance as only graduate students can when confronted with the possibility of one day having a job. Academic jobs are hard to come by, but that’s ok, because no one at my grad school expected to ever graduate. (One former classmate, a chap in his mid-thirties, has been around for the past seven years. I ran into him last week; he was in a coffee shop, writing up his thesis. Writing up your thesis? I said, because this guy had never indicated that he would ever have a thesis to write up. “[My advisor] got frustrated,” he told me, “so he just told me the answer to my problem. So I’m writing it up.” Then he paused, and continued, “I have no idea what I’ll be doing next year.”)

There’s something preposterously elitist about spending ten, fifteen, twenty years of one’s life in classrooms for its own sake. And the high end of that scale - grade school, high school, four years of university, Masters, Ph.D. - is unfathomable as a course of action to people who actually need to, like, earn money. There’s something almost deliciously ironic about the fact that it’s trust-fund kids who wake up one day when they’re thirty years old and wonder dear God, what am I going to do with my life? Kids from working class families have their own issues, and I’m not romanticizing poverty and its attendant lack of opportunities here, but one issue kids from low-income kids don’t have is feeling aimless at thirty. They’re not wondering what they’re going to do with their life, because they’re actually been doing it for the last ten or more years.

I say that [above] is almost deliciously ironic, because even though university is not job training, it is, increasingly, a prerequisite to finding decent employment of virtually any kind. Not because university teaches skills that are valuable to securing employment and working successfully (see, “university is not job training”, above), but because many employers won’t look past an applicant’s CV if the applicant hasn’t been to university. Which is a big part of why aimless kids of all income levels, fresh out of high school, assume as a given that they’ll have to go to university. (”Either that, or they’re just so gung-ho on enriching themselves and growing as people and learning for the sake of learning,” I was about to write, but even my penchant for dark humour extends so far.)

I teach at a university in which most of my students are local, around a third have been in the workforce, and a lot of them have children. In other words, my students are, on balance, mercenary and practical types who are more concerned with paying their bills than with enriching themselves or growing as people, the damned philistines. As a math teacher, I’m constantly called upon to account for “what is this useful for in real life?” Back in the day, I bought into the elitist “Jobs? Who cares about jobs?” line wholesale, and gave the stock answer about learning for the sake of learning, and interpreted my students’ queries most uncharitably - they were dissing math, the ungrateful and uncultured little snots! They had no respect for learning for the sake of learning! Why, when I was their age we didn’t even HAVE universities and we would have done anything for the opportunity to learn for the sake of learning and…

After I finished my thesis, I interviewed for two teaching jobs. Both times, my interviewers asked, “How do you deal with students who ask you why they’ll need to know this stuff in real life?”

Both times, I began my answer with, “I tell them.”

At the place where I was hired, my soon-to-be-employers were impressed. At the other place - my grad school - my not-to-be-employers were taken aback. You tell them? You mean you don’t tell them that it’s for their own good (”whether they know it or not,” was the unspoken implication) and that some things are interesting for their own sake?

“Obviously they’re not finding it interesting, though,” I replied. “They’re not going to start enjoying factoring quadratics for its own sake just because I tell them they should. So it’s more helpful if instead I give them a list of real-life models that give rise to quadratics. And, I try to design my classes around practical uses.”

I didn’t get that job. For a variety of reasons, including [above], I didn’t want it.

Anyway, I got to thinking about university, and to the extent that it is not job training, while walking back from the cafeteria the other day. The university where I teach, see, has a culinary arts program. And a cafeteria. And they’re integrated - the culinary arts students run the caf. I give the students a B for their work - there’s not much by way of vegetarian and vegan food, but what they have there is good and inexpensive - but I give the university an A+ for recognizing that they could usefully and cost-effectively employ their own students in their own field. This is the first university I’ve ever been to that served up healthy, inexpensive, tasty food, and they deserve big props for that. My alma mater didn’t have a culinary arts program, but they had a damned good computer science program and a damned good computer engineering program. Halfway through my time there, it came to pass that they needed their webpage redesigned, so they…contracted the job out to professionals to the tune of $1 million, and unveiled a website that didn’t display properly on the browsers in the computer labs in the math building. Ten grand would have kept the job in-house and resulted in a better website. If my alma mater had had a culinary arts program, it would have paid the franchising fee to bring McDonald’s onto campus, and hired the culinary arts students to serve fries for $6.75/h.

University isn’t job training, because universities are adamant about university not being job training. And it’s not because they’re too busy enriching students’ lives and fostering a love of learning. Underneath all of the cheap idealism about learning for the sake of learning (trumpeted by gainfully employed people, many of whom haven’t learned how to play a musical insturment, how to speak a foreign language, or how to play a new sport because none of those things are related to their jobs and because they’re too old to be doing that sort of thing) is a willful inability to confront the fact that students are not at universities to learn for the sake of learning. They’re there because although they have no idea what they hell they’ll be doing four years later, they know that it won’t be much if they don’t have a degree. And they, by and large, leave with little more self-knowledge or direction, because it’s not the purpose of universities to provide it.

I like learning for the sake of learning. But dammit - I could really use some job training, too.