The Unbearable Lightness of Being (…young and educated today)
I have a dear friend who is a law student. My friend works incredibly hard at her studies, and will no doubt be a successful lawyer. Last month I visited her, and we had some very interesting conversations about what it means to be a young, educated person today. Undeniably, young adults in 2011 have a myriad of options and open doors which our parents and grandparents did not. Unfortunately, such vast choice does not necessarily make answering life’s big questions any easier. Questions like ‘What do I do with my life?’ ‘What do I want out of life?’ and ‘How do I get what I want?’ actually seem more complex when society is saying ‘The world is your oyster- go and be free!’
This isn’t intended to be some ‘poor little rich kid’ whinge. Of course it is fantastic that in 2011 I can apply for jobs around the world, and imagine living anywhere that my English-speaking monolingualism allows. But such freedom can mean a lack of any clear boundaries or structure. Being able to go anywhere and do anything also implies that there is nothing to tie you to stay somewhere, or do something.
Perhaps this vastness and vagueness explains the rise of more vocational or professional degrees. Doing a law degree or an accounting degree removes some of the uncertainty, because such degrees have obvious employment opportunities post-#university. What are you going to do with a law degree? Become a lawyer. Easy. Tick. One of life’s problems removed. Of course, I’m wildly overgeneralising here. Many people undertake such professional degrees, and go on to careers which are not in the title of their degrees, and there are those who are studying such subjects because they ardently want a career in that field. But if nothing else, undertaking such a degree delays thinking about the harder career questions for a while. Many tertiary institutions have responded to the move for more ‘career focused’ education by creating and offering degrees directly tailored to a certain field of employment. Think of the Bachelor of Human Relations, PR, Marketing, Management etc which 20 or 30 years ago did not exist. These are important and very marketable workplace skills. But an entire degree in Management? As an entry level graduate, how or what are you hoping to manage?
At this point I should confess a personal bias. I studied Literature and Philosophy. There I said it. I have a B.A, an increasingly dirty word (well acronym). Arts subjects get a lot of flack. Yes, I read books for my degree, but that doesn’t mean that I didn’t learn the other important skills that an undergrad degree teaches. Research, oral and written communication, teamwork skills, analytical, argument and influencing skills; I learnt them all. To imply that a degree is somehow of lesser value because of the content that is taught to the students completely misses the point of tertiary education. At least at undergraduate level, tertiary education should have an emphasis onlearning how to learn. The content is important, yes, but what is more important is taking on the skills which will enable the student to become a life-long learner. A management degree will teach current thinking on management philosophy, but such content will be out of date in five years time or less, just as I doubt I’ll ever find a job which really calls on my knowledge of modern poetry or the just rules of war. It’s not what you learn, it’s that you learn. In order to be successful in any career, you must know how to learn, on the job, in real time.
A career is only one way of giving parameters and boundaries of our lives. I am going to be a (blank) so I will apply for jobs in that sector, take the best offer, and go from there. There is absolutely nothing wrong with such an approach, and undertaking a professional or vocational degree provides clear focus and training on breaking into a particular sector.
Today, in our global little village, young people define themselves less based on where they are from. Equally, we may derive less definition and meaning in early adulthood from who we are married to/live with/dating, as couples settle down later. So perhaps hitching our wagon metaphorically to a particular #vocation is highly understandable. But, I’ll always be a vehement defender of the humble B.A. A couple of years ago, I was talking to a trainee teacher, who said ‘Gosh, you know. At least I’m doing something real. People who study English or Philosophy, are those even uni subjects?’ I thought about mentioning words like Aristotle, places like Cambridge and Oxford, but I thought no, some people are a lost cause. So I silently shed a tear for the future children she will be teaching, and calmly walked off to find a good book to read.