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Knowledge, for What?

It is common for parents to ask the question: “What kind of job will you get with a degree in X” (fill in the X with your favorite example). Those of us trained in the liberal arts believe that acquisition of a wide range of knowledge produces a mind that is better able to engage in critical thinking, in reflection and introspection, in empathy, in the ability to connect disparate conceptual frameworks, and in the ability to express thoughts that can be comprehended by wide audiences. The appreciation of the visual and performing arts enriches an inner life and a social life. The study of ancient and modern writing provides a reverence for words that improves communication. Knowing the thinking of great minds long gone can strengthen core principles.

We urge freshmen when they arrive at Georgetown to explore things they’ve never experienced. We exhort them to discover what excites their mind and spirit. We want them to enlarge their horizons, to shape their intellects to be broader and sharper.

Yet, there is another challenge that universities have. We prepare young minds not just to perform in an academic setting, but also to be leaders in the world beyond academia. Indeed, with the costs of higher education rising and the debt loads of graduates a common public focus, we have deep obligations that the campus experience improves students’ chances at being leaders in that external world.

I don’t believe that preparing young people for an occupational role and preparing them to be broadly educated must be in conflict. We can do both. It is a proper role for faculty to concentrate on educating in their fields of expertise. When faculty have experience within the world of work, they can also be valuable advisors to students regarding outside opportunities. But other parts of the university also have an obligation to make sure that the graduates are optimally prepared for applying their academic knowledge in that world.

I’ve met with students from diverse programs who want to learn the skills of building an organization from scratch – a startup. While they acknowledge support for this thinking in the Business School, they are in another school. Some do have in mind profit-making units, but others are thinking of social entrepreneurial activities. Some of the ideas are novel applications of knowledge not traditionally associated with the world of work. They’re seeking an environment and support at Georgetown to build those organizations.

I met recently with a group of parents and alumni who care about improving Georgetown students’ readiness to enter the world of work. They have relevant knowledge – the anatomy of a job interview, effective communication of technical matters in simple terms, the social expectations in hierarchical organizations, tailoring resumes for different opportunities, describing skills extracted from courses and extracurricular experiences to apply to a given setting. They urge us to do better job of preparing students for the transition from the campus to the world.

It seems clear that we can do better in making sure our graduates are ready to hit the world running and thereby help them to maximize their impact on that world. Finding effective ways to link students with those who excel in the nonacademic world, who share their educational backgrounds, is worth pursuing. Similarly, it would be cool to create more nurturing environments on campus for students to experiment with novel real-world applications of their newfound knowledge.

3 thoughts on “Knowledge, for What?

  1. I agree, do both; but does Georgetown really do that?

    These are the actual requirements for everyone:
    Two humanities and writing courses
    Two history courses
    Two math/science courses
    Two social science courses (except B.S. majors)
    Foreign language through the intermediate level
    Two theology courses
    Two philosophy courses
    which in my view, provides no practical workforce related training.

    Does the university keep track of graduates who cannot pay back student loans or whose earnings reflect downward social mobility?
    This becomes a practical issue for our society as a whole since the US government doesn’t educate the people. From the WSJ, student loan debt surpasses credit card debt:
    http://blogs.wsj.com/economics/2010/08/09/student-loan-debt-surpasses-credit-cards/

    You can have them study something practical and highly employable, and require enough liberal arts that they get the benefits. How does Georgetown develop “readiness to enter the world of work?” Are there any requirements to get job interview training or to master common skills which will land them a job?

    liberal arts is the third WORST background for unemployment at 9.4% (behind art 11.1% and architecture 13.9%):
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/68003073@N07/6642784059/

    also, while it’s nice to think of the things the philosopher alan watts speaks about (finding your passion), the world isn’t always fair and really doesn’t care. It cares what you can do, practically. This is, in my opinion, more realistic:
    http://www.cracked.com/blog/6-harsh-truths-that-will-make-you-better-person/

    this is a report I got from gtown’s career center, dissecting the various majors and their employment outcomes:
    http://cew.georgetown.edu/whatsitworth/

  2. Just my two cents since graduating – one of the things that I have been most grateful for since moving to Taiwan has been the Georgetown community. Although I could likely have been better prepared to hit the ground running in the real world when I graduated, the alumni community in Taiwan has been a tremendous help to me in getting established overseas, finding friends and guidance.

  3. How does student employment on campus fit in here? The university has finance offices, hr offices, IT offices, & all sorts of other business environments with the types of business problems that employees will encounter when they enter the world of work. But my impression is that student jobs are, for the most part, lower level tasks in which not much of value is learned.

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Office of the ProvostBox 571014 650 ICC37th and O Streets, N.W., Washington D.C. 20057Phone: (202) 687.6400Fax: (202) 687.5103provost@georgetown.edu

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