Why go to college?

Why do young people go to college? In a short piece in Inside HigherEd this week entitled “A Not-So-Tidy Narrative,” Michael Horn and Bob Moesta share some of their findings, which were published this past fall in Choosing College: How to Make Better Learning Decisions Throughout Your Life (Jossey-Bass, 2019). The book explores the constellation (and complexity) of reasons that prospective students choose the college they do, and serves as a good reminder that it is about much more than “getting a job.”

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Re-thinking Leadership

Do you have a teetering stack of books on your bedside table? Mine looks like this: On the bottom, playing a support function, are usually classic texts that I know I should read but never really get around to (apologies to George Eliot). On top of that are books purchased in a temporary bout of self-improvement (currently: Fit at Mid-Life: a Feminist Fitness Journey, written by two philosophers and which I recommend even though I am only half-way through – ha ha!). Then, a friend’s brilliant yet difficult memoir about her mother’s suicide that I really should finish (The Art of Misdiagnosis) and a collection of poetry by a local poet (A New Index for Predicting Catastrophes). Closer to the top is Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality without Religion, the focus of a recently formed book-group of interesting people with whom I enjoy spending time; our conversations have thankfully been more reflective than the book itself. 

On top of the pile are books given to me in recent months by two different friends, who said some version of “you should read this” as they pressed the book into my hands. Both books are about leadership, and each one challenges our traditional understandings. 

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Passion vs. Duty

Should work be construed in the terms of passion or of duty? This is the question posed by a recent piece in the New York Times. The author, a philosopher by training, suggests the Stoic wisdom of Seneca as an antidote to our culture’s obsession with finding meaning through work. If we approach work in terms of duty, as Seneca advised, rather than as an expression of one’s passions, we will be less likely to fall prey to the threat of what another writer has described as “the religion of workism,” and the accompanying burn-out that could eventually develop.

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Help for Undecided Students

I “meandered” through several majors during my college years. Such exploration was encouraged, understood as an important part of the liberal arts commitment to “breadth” and the messy and slow process of “figuring it out.” By the time the deadline for declaring a major arrived, I had completed most of the required courses for the philosophy major, taken here and there as electives. I called home and left a message on my parent’s answering machine (this was in the late 80s), notifying them of my intention to declare a major in philosophy, Beyond having to endure my father’s jokes (Q: “What did the philosophy major say to the engineering major? A: “Do you want fries with that?”), they supported me in both the meandering and the final decision.

Thinking about this now from the perspective of college personnel, I can see why such meandering might be considered a problem, for the student as well as for the institution. A recent article in the Chronicle describes one strategy that some large universities are taking to circumvent these problems: the development of the “meta-major,” requiring students in their first year (and in some cases before they arrive on campus) to commit to a general area. Such interventions appear to be necessary, given the scale of the institutions. In one example cited in the article, the ratio of advisors to undeclared students is 1:275! Readers will not be surprised to hear that the “meta-major” is part of a larger strategy to improve retention and completion, and the article mentions other measures.

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Sharon Parks on Good Mentoring

The word “mentor” is used promiscuously in our society, Sharon Daloz Parks remarked recently at a gathering of several dozen higher education professionals at Goshen College. Titled “The Heart of Higher Education: Living Between What Is and What Could Be” and sponsored by the Center for Courage and Renewal, the conference offered a venue for faculty, staff and administrators to engage in conversation over several days about what Parker Palmer calls “the tragic gap,” further circumscribed at this conference as “the tragic gaps in higher education.”

Parks’ talk, which she titled, “Working the Gap, With an Open Heart, an Informed Mind, and a Little Courage,” offered both analysis and words of hope. In it, she wove together many strands from her previous work on student development and meaning-making in the college years. The talk was a treasure trove of insights and research, and upon returning home I pulled her book Big Questions, Worthy Dreams off my shelf to re-read portions of it. Here, I will focus on her comments about good mentoring.

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In praise of non-elite institutions

Dr. Katherine Maloney
Professor of Chemistry at Point Loma Nazarene University in CA

This spring, images of Hollywood stars ducking out of courtrooms accompanied astounding details of an admissions scandal that implicated several elite educational institutions. Some readers were horrified at the revelations while others categorized the pay-to-play schemes as part of a larger culture of corruption – why should higher education be immune? Whether you were surprised or not by the complicated details, it was difficult not to be disgusted. But Katherine Maloney, a graduate of Pacific Lutheran University who now teaches chemistry at Point Loma Nazarene University, had a slightly different response.

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Terrible advice

We frequently entreat students to “find their passion.” Indeed, the notion that there is one thing for which they are destined and which they must discover can figure centrally in our work with students. We put significant resources into tools that help them identify their strengths and personality traits (or types), yielding a set of descriptors that then inscribes how they understand themselves, as if that is the key to unlock the door of vocation. But, as a recent article in the “Smarter Living” section of the New York Times suggested, “Find Your Passion” is terrible advice.

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