At Wesleyan University this year the first day of the semester is also Labor Day, which has certainly caused grumbling among some of us who have to show up for class on Monday rather than enjoying the last long weekend of summer. And of course it's not just a matter of showing up Monday. Syllabi need final preparation, lectures must be written, and advisees are looking for guidance.
But on this Labor Day all of us working in higher education should remember those who won't have to report this week at all because there aren't enough jobs. With official unemployment stubbornly remaining between 9% and 10%, there are many around us who are suffering from the poverty and despair of not being able to find work. Bob Herbert's column in the New York Times on September 4 underscores the plight of a group of custodians recently laid off from their jobs at a luxury office building in Los Angeles. Closer to home for me, the Middletown food bank Amazing Grace reports a red alert because of the low level of supplies on their shelves. Right here at Wesleyan, we have made a small number of position reductions over the last 18 months. Each job is personal as well as institutional, and each position elimination was painful.
As students plan their courses for the fall, and as faculty plan their curricula, how should we connect the reality of labor and unemployment to the broad liberal learning we so value? It can be done very specifically, as with history courses that focus on poverty, economic classes that deal with job creation, and sociology seminars that examine the impact of job loss on families. And we can make the connection more generally by thinking through how a liberal arts education is related to how one will support oneself. As I have said many times now in various venues, I believe a liberal education has never been more relevant to work in the world than it is today. This has little to do with the specific choice of concentration by an undergraduate. I was recently talking to a Wesleyan parent who told me that in interviewing over a thousand people for jobs over the years he has never asked what somebody majored in during college. Instead, he has been looking for the ability to think creatively and critically, to imagine possibilities and to solve problems. This is the kind of ability cultivated by liberal learning. A liberal arts education is not the only kind that develops these capacities, but it is a crucial one.
A liberal education teaches that rigor and innovation, far from being in tension with one another, can often go hand in hand. Patience and diligence -- practice and method -- are qualities developed across a liberal arts curriculum. The American pragmatists celebrated inquiry as a mode of experience, and teachers and students today continue to believe that we must reflexively look back on our own inquiries to assess the learning process and whether the results are relevant to life beyond the specific questions being pursued. Self-criticism need not be mere navel-gazing. The practical is not the enemy of the true.
For years I have been telling students and their families that an undergraduate education should help students to discover what they love to do, and to get better at it. I've recently realized that it is important to emphasize a third goal: to develop the capacity to share what one loves to do (and has gotten a little better at) with others. This third goal, let's call it "engagement," connects what one has learned with what one can do with the communities of which one is a part.
The liberal education that our students begin on Labor Day doesn't promise a specific kind of job, but it does promise to expand one's possibilities for meaningful work after graduation. Learning to learn also means learning to work, to engage with others in getting things done, creating opportunities and solving problems. Engaging with others also means being aware when we can be helpful to those in need, those who may not have the same opportunities we are enjoying while at the university.
My hope for Labor Day and the beginning of the semester is that through study and engagement we will eventually learn to create more jobs so that the perils and anxieties that mark this year's holiday won't become permanent parts of our economy and culture.
Follow Michael Roth on Twitter: www.twitter.com/mroth78