At Wesleyan University today is the first day of classes, and many people are annoyed to be losing their last long weekend of summer, or imagine that we are sending some kind of signal to add further insult to the many injuries already suffered by the labor movement. We've actually started on the first Monday of the month for more prosaic reasons having to do with hours in the classroom (and faculty and student schedules). But it really does make perfect sense to focus on labor as we begin the academic year.
Labor is much on the mind for our students as they begin the term. Some of that is in the nature of choosing classes. A few students want to know "how hard is this class?" "How much work will I have to do?" This is almost always an impossible question to answer just by looking at the syllabus. Some professors assign ten books or more to read during the term, while others focus on one or two. The truth is that most classes offer increased intellectual rewards the more work you put into them. And at small colleges and universities around the country, faculty and students are working very hard. Last year's educational shocker Academically Adrift showed that far too many students were not being asked to work very much at all outside of class. But the noisy keg parties and tales of spring break madness shouldn't allow us to forget that across the country thousands of young men and women are writing papers or engaging in lab experiments every week, doing tons of reading, and wrestling with sophisticated conceptual frameworks. And their professors are working at least as hard to mentor them.
But labor is on the mind of our students and their families in a more general sense this year. The awful job situation in the United States has lasted far too long, and each year frosh begin their college years hoping it will be better by the time they graduate. At the end of last week we learned that the US economy created no new jobs in August, and in a few days President Obama is scheduled to give what is billed as a major address on jobs. It's about time politicians focused on what has become an epidemic of joblessness. The real wages of working men and women in America have been declining for several years now, as the gap between the rich and the rest grows impossibly wide. The most pressing question facing the American economy for the next decade is how we will create and sustain decent jobs. Everything else is a distraction.
It's no wonder that already parents have begun asking me how I think a university education is going to equip our students as they head off into the job market in the spring. One can certainly understand their anxiety. Although a college degree is clearly an advantage, the job market is just terrible -- even for grads with an impressive diploma. After four years of a liberal arts education, what kind of labor will open to our new alumni?
The answer isn't simple, but it is clear that employers are often looking for workers who can think creatively, solve problems, seek opportunities and be self-motivating. Employers, when they are able to hire for good jobs, are looking for people who can learn while they are working -- folks who aren't just wed to a tool they learned to use to tackle yesterday's challenge. At Wesleyan we believe deeply in the translational liberal arts -- a broad, pragmatic education through which one learns how to apply modes of thinking and innovation in a variety of contexts. Even as the contexts change (whether that be through technology, politics or the economy), we believe our students will be well equipped to make their way in the world. We believe that graduates with a broad education will be at the forefront of those creating and sustaining the jobs. The future will not be shaped by those who hone a single skill relevant only to a single problem. The future will be shaped by those whose skills can be translated into new forms as different problems arise and new opportunities are created.
But this isn't just an article of faith. Colleges and universities today also offer practical advice, internship information and personal connections through career resource centers. Undergraduates often find their way to these centers in their first or second semesters, as they begin to think about labor: about how to translate what they are learning on campus to creating opportunities off campus.
Happy First Day of Classes! Happy Labor Day!!