Tall, Dark, and Mysterious


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.


  1. At N.C. State, we had a food science program, and an agriculture program. They didn’t supply all the food to the caf, but they did make ice cream and apple cider for sale. I suppose the equivalent of selling your homework for math students was selling all the former calculus exams with full solutions (which is what the math club did for fundraising.) The engineering students ran their computer network, math grads and undergrads ran their computer network (and the people in my dorm ran their own network)… this is how a lot of my friends got those tech jobs out of school, because their degrees had nothing to do with computers. Most of the physical trainers for the sports teams were undergrads training to become… sports trainers. I think that being at a large state university, most students expected to have a job while at college to pay the bills, and there were plenty of jobs to be had on campus. The college was cheap, and knew they could pay undergrads piddling money, and the stuff would still get done. Amazing, I know.

    The people who =really= were there to learn for the sake of learning were the retired folks who were taking classes (at a discount, I might add, and usually not for credit or a degree). There was a retired medical doctor going for a physics degree, I remember, and one old guy in my Japanese classes. They were cool to have around.

    - meep — 9/18/2004 @ 2:19 am

  2. I think that the trouble comes from the fact that professors have big egos. You need a big ego to even get the job and keep it. You need to be able to pretend you will be or are, the best expert in the world in something. You need to be pretentious a bit. It helps if you have little experience of the real-world and can easily dismiss a large chunk of the universe as being barely civilized.

    In turn, these professors couldn’t offer job training if their lives depended on it. Most of them could not find jobs outside universities. In some department, like mathematics, maybe one person could find a job outside the university, others would be serving fries, if that.

    Add the fact that they are incompetent at offering job training with a big ego, and you have people who will say that job training is irrelevant within university, and their ego will lead them to say that it is even harmful.

    - Daniel Lemire — 9/19/2004 @ 7:30 am

  3. I don’t think that university can be dismissed completely as a place that provide usable skills in the workplace, or at least not as a place that weeds out people who are lacking certain skills. I don’t think that a university degree shows that someone is going to be a good employee, but it does show that you are more likely to be able to learn the on-the-job skills you need quickly (since no one but professionals and tradespeople have any kind of training anyway) and less likely to have violent conflicts with your co-workers (since for one reason or another education is negatively correlated to violent behaviour). It shows that you are willing to stay up all night now and then to get a job done, or that you are one of the rare people who is so good at organizing that they never have to do that, or that you are so good at cheating that the company will never know the difference.

    University isn’t job training, but highschool wasn’t university training, and elementary school wasn’t highschool training. We just try to muddle through, figuring everything out as we go along. The more levels of education someone has been through, or the more years of experience someone has in the workforce, the more they have shown that they muddle through alright.

    I essentially agree with you, but there is something to be said for making everyone learn for learning’s sake for a while. It keeps culture moving at a break-neck pace. Job training is really best left until after you get the job anyway, which is why I keep wishing that apprenticeship programs were open to people my age.

    - l337n00b — 9/19/2004 @ 1:26 pm

  4. […] chool, the more it suffers from the jobs-are-for-little-people syndrome as documented in a post by Tall, Dark, and Mysterious. Here is an insightful quote: University isn’t job trai […]

  5. You’re really a brilliant writer. I love it when I stop by and there’s a new entry.

    - wes — 9/19/2004 @ 11:26 pm

  6. Well, university is not meant as job training - so why do jobs that really don’t require the kind of training university supplies require that damned degree? Leetnoob (not a leeter myself, so I know I misspell your name ;) ) has a bit of it - it’s a filter for certain things that have nothing to do with university itself. It’s like a Harvard degree is a signal that you are intelligent and can learn stuff.

    However, from my own job interviewing experience, my educational experience (and excellent record) gets my foot in the door, and other things get me hired. It’s not only job history, but experience in general - I have my own website, and wrote Perl filters for it. I’ve taught myself several different programming languages for particular purposes (and I remember why I preferred one language over another, and what kind of tasks they’re suited for). I’ve helped people online figure out golf foursome schedules. I’ve had a brief stint as an expert witness in a patent infringement case (that was interesting - never made it to court, though). My biggest selling point is being a fast learner, and I’ve sure proved it at my job — in one year, I’ve gone from Excel newbie to the Excel expert other people consult about problems (I also get the coolest assignments because of this).

    In any case, I didn’t go get a Masters degree in math so I could get particular jobs - I did it because I enjoyed learning math. People do have to realize that to get a job, you’ve got to do more than just take classes - everybody with a university degree has done that. You really need to have something to show skills you’ve developed, and initiative outside of just taking classes. I think most colleges do admit that this is the case, and many have co-op programs to help their students get job experience, but really, it’s up to you.

    - meep — 9/20/2004 @ 1:48 am

  7. So your point is that that research should be more directed? that university profs should spend more effort helping students sort out who they are or what education will make them more employable?

    Universities are already pressured by government to be industry funded or co-funded. Corporations are by their very charters seeking evident forseeable gain, and yet many of the real advancements made by mankind resulted from lines of thought and research that had no immediately obvious applications. What use is string theory? I think it will be the key to unlocking the energy in the space time manifold that will save use from choking in fossil fuels, but I certainly can’t see how, and if you can see how it will (or won’t) you should publish right away.

    I don’t think that granting agencies should fund silly projects, but letting industry (and industry funded government) decide what is silly gave us such stellar projects as
    and suspended the funding for scram jets and the Hubble.

    I think it is ill considered to paint universities (ie university professors) as a faceless group wilfully ignoring why students go to university today. You are wrong. Professors are not(on the whole) blind to the interests and motivations of their students, but they aren’t there to help people figure out their lives. They often do, by example, doing their job of pushing the limits of thought and knowledge forward and outward -a slow, messy, and incremental process in between Leibnitzs and Couviers and Newtons.
    And since when were university professors supposed to be their student’s career counsellors? therapists? parents?

    Once in a while a university prof inspires someone to greatness.
    And with great regularity university profs produce a useful product: the university graduate.

    Someone with a higher degree is usually smarter, more motivated, more resourceful, and more broadly educated than someone who only made it through high school. Who would you rather hire, and set loose in your company? I encounter wonderful brilliant self educated and uncredentialled people all the time, but when I am hiring someone I don’t know from a crowd of applicants I don’t know credentials are invaluable.

    The prof I live with (this is my conflict of interest disclosure) is not coasting in contemptuous isolation from her students and the reality of today’s work environment. She worked her way up every step to her tenured and not as secure as you certainly seem to think job. She is fighting the steady incursion of the corporate world and the government world who seek to push research and thought into the grooves and bins they think are correct (on the whole sexist, elitist and oppressive ones)and who seek to make low paid gruds from as many grads as possible. She is keenly aware of her student’s lives. What do you know of her life to damn her because you she and her colleagues didn’t plan out your career or figure out how to make you employable? Did you know that she is learning Italian with me - just because it’s fun, learning to dance, running and skiing and planning a tandem bicycle tour, raising 2 teenagers and dealing with the increasingly illiterate and unprepared students she faces every day?

    Universities are communities of people, not faceless institutions.
    I think you enrich the community, but you are not alone.

    - littoral zone — 9/20/2004 @ 10:33 am

  8. i wonder if it would have been better if i had left a really long comment, so that it blended in better with the rest of the comments. [pondering….]

    - wes — 9/20/2004 @ 12:19 pm

  9. Wow, so many good comments, and I have a lot to say in response. Littoral Zone’s comment alone will probably require a whole other post to address - which I am in no shape to do after a full day of teaching. In the meantime, LZ - I’m not dissing individual profs (academic types, alas, are our own best critics, and I know that much of what I’ve said in this post has been said by university instructors that are more highly-ranked than I am) so much as dissing a culture in which two contradictory truths are held to be self-evident: 1) university is not job training, it’s about learning for the sake of learning, and 2) YOU MUST GET A UNIVERSITY EDUCATION IF YOU WANT TO GET A DECENT CAREER. Nothing against learning for the sake of learning (though there are places other than university to do that!). It’s just that if that IS what university is about, it shouldn’t be the single de facto necessary step to take if you want to get anywhere in life; there should be some way to prepare for a career path in which, say, writing ten 2000-word essays every four months isn’t the skill that will make or break your performance. (No, university aren’t parents of counselors or such. But when I asked my profs andparents and guidance counselors for, well, guidance, they all said “go to university, you’ll figure things out there.”)

    In fact, you, LZ, make part of my point by contrasting university-educated people with “self-educated, uncredentialled” types - why should those be the only alternatives? How about, a university-educated person versus someone who was trained at a community college, or someone who acquired skills through an apprenticeship program (l337n00b, I agree with you so much on this one), or an older person who grew up before it was necessary to go to university and who has 20 years of pertinent job experience? Would you necessarily hire a university grad over one of THOSE people? For any job? Every job?

    University has its uses; it shouldn’t be the only option for finding career and fulfilment (particularly if it’s not designed for that purpose), and it shouldn’t be the default option for aimless teenagers who are bright but who have no idea what they’re going to do with their lives. And nor should it trump all other credentials! I’m experiencing the absurdity of that right now - I DO have a degree, two actually, Bachelor’s and Master’s - and I’m essentially teaching high school math at a college right now. I’m temping, because they want someone with a Ph.D. to replace me permanently. I have no idea why having a Ph.D. in sheaf cohomology or elliptic curves or category theory will make me more effective at teaching how to find the point of intersection between two lines in the xy-plane, but maybe my employer knows something I don’t. This isn’t a matter of They having credentials and Me not having some; I could provide references and teaching evals and standardized test scores and emails saying “you’re an awesome teacher, I still remember the stuff you taught me 3 years ago” to any prospective employer. But that’s irrelevant when certain applicants having bigger, shinier degrees than I have. The fact that I have far more teaching experience than the overwhelming majority of newly-minted math Ph.D.’s and can account for my ability to teach at the level I want to teach at is irrelevant. Why? (And I also don’t have a B.Ed., so I can’t teach math in a public high school. Never mind that in my province there is such a shortage of high school math teachers that ANYONE with a B.Ed. who wants to teach high school math, is hired. Once I was hired to substitute teach at a semi-public high school; the regular calculus teacher didn’t know calculus. Literally. He had never taken a course in it. But he had that all-important university degree.)

    Much more to say, no time to say it on this shared computer. But LZ, yeah, you misconstrued my post utterly. And wes - feel free to leave short comments like that, eh?

    - Moebius Stripper — 9/20/2004 @ 4:41 pm

  10. In some states in the U.S., having a masters degree in the subject you want to teach is sufficient teaching certification. At my high school, that was a minimum requirement for teachers (and we did have those vaunted PhDs. Couldn’t really tell the difference in teaching excellence. I think, again, the point was to filter — lots of people would apply to teach there, so they cut down the prospective pool.)

    My point is this - since high school diplomas no longer guaranteed any level of skill, even rudimentary, people pushed off the “they know some stuff” credential onto college. Someone once had the idea that simply being accepted by particular universities should be able to be used as a credential, as the school has vetted you, and places like Harvard don’t take dummies (well, dummies who can’t read, that is. There are plenty of dumb people at Harvard, but they’re high-achieving dummies, so that’s got to count for something.)

    What’s funny (to me) is that employers are finding that even this credential is becoming meaningless, due to the proliferation of “easy” majors. And that whole “not related to the job” thing. So I’ve taken aptitude tests as part of the job application process - they’ve incorporated it into their system. Or it could be they’re trying to screen out people who are =too= smart. Didn’t think of that.

    In any case, this is why I like co-op programs at colleges, incorporated with particular majors. The engineering school at N.C. State did very well with that. The math department had several professors who did work with local companies, too, and incorporated some of these things in class — they’ve got a seminar for grad students every summer on industrial math (I went to it), where they get in companies to present short projects that are related to current work. For example, I was in the Natl Security Agency group, and we worked on trying to do content-based searches. Interesting stuff. Others had projects related to 3-D design of car parts, and another on how one assembles a car door. The old engineering ways were trial-and-error, and they were hoping to see if math models might be able to eke out better efficiency in their process. In my grad class on math modeling a different year at State, we took field trips to a plastics factory and to an Air Force base, to check out some research projects and take data. That’s just my math experience - my physics dept experience was different, but similar.

    In any case, this is how I got to love applied math so much. People =care= about the results. You could say that people care about results in sheaf cohomology (or whatever that is), but no one involved with anything making serious money. At least, not yet. I’m sure someone can think of an industrial application for it. It’s also a major difference between the general attitude at a liberal arts college vs. an engineering school; the second does believe in learning, but there’s an external goal to it.

    So I guess what I’m saying is that at some universities, the training going into getting a degree is job training of a sort. Most people still don’t get a job in doing anything that they did in college, but one gets particular skills that do get used often (working on real-life projects, the real world problem-solving process, making presentations, etc.) I suppose it’s a function of major. There’s not much real job training in the humanities departments, but in engineering, there’s plenty.

    - meep — 9/21/2004 @ 1:24 am

  11. There is a somewhat related article in the London Review of Books. It should be accessible to the general public.

    The article discusses a British government report on the future of higher education. As such, it is very focused on Britain. It does mention the identity problems that you all raise, and I think makes for an interesting read.

    MS : I had sent you an email about this article, but retract my summary.

    - Sam — 9/21/2004 @ 8:17 am

  12. Is it fair that employers fail to carefully evaluate the skills and qualifications for positions and fail to interview and test to discover the best candidates, instead falling back on arbitrary and often irrelevant markers? What sensible person would argue that?

    On the other hand it is hardly the universities’ fault that employers realize that universities teach skills at critical thinking, problem solving, and organization and presentation of arguments - skills most employers want. Employers thin their job applicants from the initial mob to the mere throng who have crossed the university hurdle. The throng is likely to be a higher percentage of people who actually have the skills you really want. It isn’t fair, but who said the personnel managers had to be fair? Most of them really don’t care at all.

    And no matter how unfair or stupid employment requirements might be, I have few illusions about being able to change them until accede to the throne (which is not looking imminent).

    I studied what interested me at university. As I progressed through uni (and since) I started to think about the type of work I might like to do. I looked at the qualifications I needed, and then I got them - no matter how stupid, irrelevant, tedious, expensive, inconvenient. Fair? No. Fun? No. Did it (and does it) get me where I want to be? Yes. That famous bottom line.

    This is reality, and it is not a new reality.

    MS - you have most (if not all) of the qualities of a stellar teacher. It is obvious from how you present your thoughts and interests. So, the question is, do you want to teach?

    To teach at university you need a PhD unless you want to be at a small school or a sessional at survival wages (and you will never be secure). Does it matter if your PhD is in sheaf cohomology? It only matters if you are more excited by sheaf cohomology than nonabelian homology or some other wierd topology - because you have to be excited about something to get through a PhD - the ticket to the job you might want.

    If you want to teach high school you need a stupid tedious dull expensive (and for you otherwise useless) BEd. Your posts through that course would be fascinating.

    Should you change the system? Sure. First you need to get into it.

    - littoral zone — 9/21/2004 @ 1:31 pm

  13. Even more mind-boggling: I’ve worked at a school that has a major in growing grass; it requires a semester of calculus.

    - Rudbeckia Hirta — 9/21/2004 @ 3:56 pm

  14. calculus might be useful for figuring out how to best irrigate the grass.

    - Jen — 9/21/2004 @ 8:36 pm

  15. University should be job training. Anyone who thinks they can get away with enrichment is young and naive and needs taking care of.

    - Nebbia — 9/22/2004 @ 8:24 am

  16. My engineering course is largely project-based group work. When I did work experience, the “real world” felt familiar because engineers do work in teams (it helps that many of our lecturers came back to further study after some years in industry). I didn’t understand why people complained that what they had learned at uni was useless in the real world of work because I was using everything I had learned in lectures!

    The university forty minutes away runs the same course by teaching theory and application. They produce engineering graduates with the intellectual rigour for for research (they get to push the “knowlege envelope”). It suits a different kind of person. Some of my friends who go there love it — but if a high school student asks them to recommend a “practical” engineering course, they will direct them to my uni.

    Anyway, the other uni is more prestigious than mine but that has more to do with history than a high regard for research.

    - joanium — 9/24/2004 @ 8:00 am

  17. […] goals of the academy with the perceived (and actual) importance of university education at Jobs are for the little people.) Students are told - and told correctly, to a large extent - that […]

  18. […] n real life; but the instructors for their majors aren’t reinforcing my lessons, and my students aren’t at school to broaden their horizons […]

  19. “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.”

    If they were, they’d be taking philosophy or history (which, under the right teacher, can be quite removed from Mumbleology).

    [PS: I’m dreading the day when your “AddemUp” says “1/0=”

    You could even expand it to “The 3267th digit of pi=”]

    MS’s comments are really disheartening. A B.Ed. qualifies you to teach Quantum Physics, even if you’ve never set foot in a physics department. “We don’t care what we teach, we know HOW to teach, and that’s all that counts.” Like knowing the 8 intelligences, so that part of the class with no clue can dress up as top quarks and do an electon-dance.

    - Mike — 2/10/2005 @ 11:24 am

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