I love to teach first-year classes or, as I like to call them, my New York City classes because “If I can make it there, I can make it anywhere” (apologies to Frank Sinatra). In whatever field, first year classes are always a challenge. It is where you must persuade your greenhorn students that the new phase in their lives is one to which they should commit all that they have. The reason is simple: four years or thereabout from that first day we welcome them as freshers, they are expected to emerge as teachers, counselors, financial advisors, social workers, human resources managers, administrators, journalists, the list is endless. That is, we have four years, more or less, to suit them for the rest of their lives, to help them function optimally for the smooth running of our respective societies. However short, this is the time frame we have as college teachers to suit our students’ post-graduation life and all its vicissitudes, personal and professional.
Time imposes a huge responsibility on teachers and students alike. But it is our responsibility as teachers that concerns me in this piece. It is difficult enough To do our job of readying the future generation for the tasks ahead. Our task is further complicated by two major factors. First, we cannot always be sure that our students have the requisite level of preparedness for this stage of their lives as we would want. Second, we must deal with the expectations that different constituencies in society have of both us and the graduates we are charged to produce.I focus on these expectations in the rest of this piece.
Our freshers come to us already saturated with depressing news about majors that pay very much, not much or not at all, post-graduation. Add to that parents’ pressures on both students and teachers that their wards receive training that leads not back to their parents’ basements or dead-end, low-paying “Mcjobs” but instead to “real” jobs that will ensure at least as good a life as their parents’, if not better.
And if the pressure from parents is not enough, there is abundant press on why certain majors are dying, not worth their investment, or highly unlikely to have any returns. I remember once in graduate school being asked at a party what I was going to do with a Ph.D. in philosophy by a not particularly gracious peer. “Drive a cab?”, he sneered. “Why not?”, I replied. “But, if you ever enter my cab, you will encounter a cab driver like no other, thanks to my philosophy doctorate.” I see no evidence that things have changed.
We in the universities have not helped the situation. From state legislators who think that state schools’ faculty are overpaid laggards feeding off the public trough while producing unemployable graduates to employers who, increasingly, are working to evade their previous part of the social contract—training prospective employees for their particular positions in their enterprises—respecting the social reproduction of labor-power, we in the academy have been caving to these pressures by trying more and more to structure instruction to meet the ever-shifting exigencies of the workplace. Our concessions only lead to ever more ridiculous demands on our pedagogies.
This is how I push back, for what it is worth. Those who write on majors that pay or produce the most billionaires or hold the best job prospects are, simply put, peddling snake oil to the teenage freshmen and women who show up in my first-year cohort in recent times. These characterizations are based on dubious assumptions that do not bear scrutiny. Take any major that supposedly produces billionaires. Why and how does this happen? Is there something inherent to this major such that, no matter what, its graduates become or tend or are most likely to become billionaires? There is no evidence of any such major anywhere. For, were there to be such a major, it should not matter where it is studied, who taught it, or what the personal mettles of its graduates are. We know that none of this is true.
What majors meet all the criteria for success have varied across time and in different places. This means that majors come and go on the billionaire-making carousel. What we find, instead, is the compelling play of radical contingency in determining success in life, even when that life’s prospects may have been primed for success by the choice of particular majors. Such contingent elements include the state of the economy, both local and global; who teach such majors and where; the personal qualities and quirks of those who earn the majors; and the general intellectual ferment obtainable in the short term while certain ideas and movements dominate.
The problem, though, is that these other considerations are not available to my prospective students most of whom are coming into college, precisely, to acquire the kinds of critical tools that they would need to cut through the thicket of the dubious proclamations respecting their prospective interests in college. But the impact is unmistakable. Incoming students are goaded into embracing courses of study for which they are ill-suited or have zero passion. The pressure to make getting a job, a real job at that, post-graduation leads young minds into closing those minds before they were ever opened and sowing seeds of future dissatisfaction with their lives well before they start leading those lives. This is unfair enough to the students. It is even more pernicious in its effects on society’s prospects and those of our collective and individual lives over time.
It is why I now make it clear to parents, prospective students and others, when I first meet them, that I am a peddler of useless knowledge. On the first day of classes, I have made a habit of confronting head-on the negative reinforcements my freshers have come to me with regarding what majors pay or do not pay, the goal of their education, what they may look forward to in my class and, I hope, in other classes as they wend their way through college in preparation for life afterwards.
One consequence of filling our prospective students’ heads with the idea that they should shun certain majors for no other reason than that they are losing propositions is that they come to us with a very skewed understanding of our role as their instructors. Unfortunately, many of us in the academy inadvertently subscribe to the foolish, noxious idea that we are only as good as how popular our classes are. And the popularity at stake is not determined by how good we are as teachers but by how much or well our courses train students for jobs measured by assessments dominated by metrics that emphasize “job readiness” on the part of those who go through our instructions. In other words, we easily, even if unwittingly, give up our roles as teachers and assume those of job trainers.
I, on the contrary, make it a point of duty at my first meeting with my classes to problematize some of those ideas that I highlighted above. I declare to my students:
I am a teacher, not a job trainer. If you have signed up for this class in the belief that anything you learn here will train you for any job, it is a mistake. Whether it is a class in philosophy of the human person, ethics or social and political philosophy, nothing that I share in this class can be connected, without more, to any specific job that you may have post-graduation. In other words, if you have permitted yourself to believe that sitting in a class like this is a preparation for any specific or specifiable job, you may wish to reconsider staying in the class. Feel free not to come back next week.
The reason is not far to seek. Were I, or anyone else who is neither a guild-master nor an instructor in any of our vocational or professional schools where specific job-related skills and their inculcation in students is the direct object of instruction, to tell students that we know where life might take them after graduation, what job might avail them, or how many jobs they will go through in their lives, they should be deeply suspicious. Even in the past, when most lives were spent in one career or, at most, two, it would have required an unavailable gift of clairvoyance on teachers’ part to divine what jobs their students would end up with and teach to those jobs. Now, we live in an age where an average life might burn through three or more careers in a life that continues to strain the bounds of our mortality. How then does one pretend to teach to any job?
Our response to our legislators who want us to produce workers that are ready to go to work the day after graduation should be one of defiance, resistance and a robust showing of why they are wrong. To those employers who now demand that we fit our graduates to their respective job specifications, we need only let them know that our colleges and universities are not their remote training schools. What is more, we do not work for them.
We work for the communities that sponsor the institutions where we try to make it our business to repay the leisure they afford us by pushing pack the frontiers of knowledge, apprehending problems, solving some, but forever hoping to produce knowledge about everything from multiple directions. We work for the larger society that both directly and indirectly underwrites our endeavors even when it is not clear that any tangible products would come from them.
Yes, there are utilitarian dimensions to what we teachers do in the academy both when it concerns our research and what classes we teach to those students who undergo instruction with us. Even when we produce knowledge for its own sake, there is an underlying understanding that, at some point in the lives of our societies or the course of human life, the knowledge that results from our strivings will help humanity come to a better understanding of various processes, social and natural, in and with which we have to contend in life. But this type of utility is a far cry from the immediate demands of job training that require that its graduates be ready for work on the morrow after graduation.
Given that we do not know where our students are headed after graduation or how long they might tarry at each career stop, We cannot even deign to know what we should train them for in that respect. The assumption that we teachers are possessed of job skills that we might impart to our students is not worthy of attention. That may be true of graduate students when it comes to our imparting to them research and teaching skills. For the rest, I hope that no one seriously entertains that possibility.
My job as a philosophy teacher is not to circumscribe the horizon of my students to particular jobs or specific engagements. In the four years, on average, in which I am charged to turn my greenhorn freshers into a variety of contributors to our common life, both locally and globally—teachers, counselors, social workers, managers, the list goes on—it is my duty to expand them. Expanding them means equipping them with those intangible but requisite capacities that define a solid, well-crafted liberal education.
The goal is to make students, post-college, wherever life might take them, whatever employment they might be considered trainable for in the working world, not only quick studies but, more importantly, better suited to do the job with creativity, efficiency, integrity, clear thinking, ability to ask questions and, just generally, never settle for the humdrum nor assume that anything is obvious. I love to put it simply: I want to produce students who will always be the ones on their teams to say, “but, wait a minute, might there be another way of understanding\doing\framing\solving, etc., this?” To do this, they must read with care, be that a speech or pre-surgery clerk notes indicating which limb is diseased, do the little things well, and always feel terrible at not tracking or making simple mistakes.
Beyond these intangible, almost unmeasurable skills, we are called upon to produce sophisticated men and women, possessed of a sense of responsibility to their immediate communities and humanity at large, able to contribute intelligently to conversations on topics wide and varied, forever ready to engage the world. Even the best-trained worker who does not come with the qualities just iterated is not likely to be of any serious worth to any workplace desirous of success.
When legislators, media, parents and others ask us to turn teaching into an exercise in job training, producing graduates who are suited to the larger possibilities of a desirable life is the most important casualty. For my part, I am happy to impart to and infuse my students with useless knowledge. If past results are anything to go by, I have reason to be proud of the graduates I have been privileged across four continents to put through their paces to service to humanity. That is my ultimate justification for insisting on being a teacher and never a job trainer.
Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò is Professor of African Political Thought at the Africana Studies and Research Center, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY, U.S.A. He has taught at universities in Canada, Nigeria, Germany, South Korea, and Jamaica. His research interests are wide and varied.