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On academic ideals and student pragmatism

In one section of The Once and Future Worker (2018), Oren Cass contrasts the noble-sounding aspirations appearing in university mission statements with the reasons that students give for going to university. The former typically promise things like improving minds, citizens engaged with societies, and so on, while the latter (according to surveys cited by Cass) are overwhelmingly “I want to get a job”.

Having a job is certainly a pragmatic concern for someone living in a society in which having one is the only way of obtaining the means to live and of earning the respect of society. Perhaps the authors of university mission statements imagine students would arrive at university to improve their minds if only they weren’t compelled to get a job instead, or at least hope that the two aren’t mutually exclusive. (Cass’ view is that jobs are good for us and that the economy should be configured so as to provide plenty of them, independently of what universities have to do with it.)

Speaking for myself, I can’t recall thinking all that much about getting a job when choosing my course of study (or whether to go to university at all). I knew I wanted to be an engineer, and I must have been at least vaguely aware that some sort of job would be at the end of it. But I’m sure I would never have expressed my motivation in such crude terms as “I want to get a job”.

Of course I’m someone who went on to become an academic, and probably have much in common with the kind of people who write university mission statements. But having sat on numerous panels interviewing students applying to enter degree programmes at the Singapore Institute of Technology, I think it’s more complex even for those not destined to become academics. For a start, few if any of them simply say “I want a job”; they say they want a job as a software engineer (and I’m prepared to take them at their word on this given that many have already undertaken study, work or hobbies in the field, and have subsequently put in the effort to make the application and come to the interview).

Furthermore, they’re clearly aware that having a job is the way that software engineering gets done in our society. Even if a prospective student wanted to create software simply for the joy of it (as I did, and many of the more enthusiastic applicants to SIT degrees do), far and away the most practical way of achieving this is to have a software engineering job. I myself have come to adopt this line of thinking in reconciling pragmatic goals with academic idealism, at least in the context of engineering: the academic ideal of an engineer is surely someone who produces functioning technology that improves people’s lives, which—fortunately—happens to be just what one would expect of an engineering company, and employing engineers is their means of doing it.

For as long as society requires everyone to have job, we can’t know for sure what a completely unconstrained student might do. Perhaps only the most dedicated ones would subject themselves to three or four years of classes, assignments and examinations—though some people even now do more or less this in order to reach the peak of their performance in arts or sports in which there is little chance of economic success. Yet surely people would continue to learn in some way, as evidenced by the numerous people who even now attend hobby classes, teach themselves skills that they find useful, or even engage with society through voluntary work or contributions to public debate.

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