Liberal Education

Hiring Grads: What’s Going On? Part IV

This is the fourth and final installment in a series on the purpose of higher education.

In Part III, we saw that business’s hiring managers often are not getting the sort of specialized college graduates they want because college, generally speaking, is not the right place to train people for such narrowly designed work. And we saw that many top executives are not getting the sort of independent, self-determining college graduates they want because so much of academia isn’t as serious as it once was about liberal education.

Business is of two opinions about the sort of graduates it wants. That much is clear. But it does not seem to understand that one of those opinions is completely at odds with the real purpose of college, and—in the long run—with the real needs of business as well.

The primary purpose of college—contrary to the opinion of hiring managers—is not to provide trained-up workers for business, nor even to provide young people with the skills needed to make a living. The primary purpose is to help young people develop the character and the judgment to shape a life worth living.

What is most important in this development? Let me suggest four things.

• First, a stable character strengthened by habits that let you cooperate with fortune when it is favorable and contend with it when not. Such habits are, for instance, humility, forbearance, flexibility, resilience, fortitude, industriousness, persistence, courage.

• Second, an active imagination that enables you to envision a stimulating future that demands your utmost to bring it into being.

• Third, a practiced intelligence that enables you to reason competently, so that you can think things through to the best of your ability.

• And fourth, practical wisdom (also known as good judgment), which is the application of intelligence to the problems life presents and the choices it demands.

Reinforcing or establishing these four traits is the primary purpose of college education, which aims at nurturing a whole human being. It cultivates the total humanity of young people by strengthening the distinctive aptitudes of human beings, both intellectual and practical. Its ultimate aims are individual happiness and the common good. Its products are good human beings and good citizens.

A secondary purpose of college education is to help students find a means of making a living. To put making a living in second place seems to astonish people nowadays. But that is only because the changes in higher education over the past half-century may have confused our judgment. In the modern world, getting a job seems to be of paramount importance.

But making a living—important as it may be—is only a part of life, while education aims at the whole of life. A well-grounded liberal education can help students understand the relative contribution of making a living to the overarching goal of building a life worth living. Successful college graduates not only have useful job skills, but also possess the independence of mind to see how those skills can be used for their own happiness and the happiness of those around them. This applies not only in their personal lives, but also in their business lives, if they should choose to make a living in the business world.

So it is the top executives, not the hiring managers, who see the real value of a college education and the real needs of business. Yet it is the attitude of the hiring managers—the short-term pressure to plug highly specialized workers into the sockets that need filling now—that has captured society’s thinking about the purpose of a college education.

I am encouraged by the efforts of businesses and college leaders to work together to address the problem. For instance, the LEAP (Liberal Education & America’s Promise) initiative of the Association of American Colleges & Universities has established an Employer-Educator Compact that recognizes the crucial importance of liberal education to the future of business.

We now need to find a way for higher education to team up with top business executives and help hiring managers see the long term advantages of a liberal education. If we can do so, colleges will be able to devote more resources to providing the liberal education students really need, so that business can start getting more of the graduates it really needs.