While perusing the Internet one day, I stumbled across an interesting article: “Get Rich U: There are no walls between Stanford and Silicon Valley. Should there be?” by Ken Auletta. The article called to mind a particular parallel to CMC. The embedment of Silicon Valley and engineering as staples at Stanford reminded me of CMC’s strengths and ties, as well as institutional skewing, within the area of economics.
Auletta discussed Stanford’s recent bid for a New York City campus solely devoted to computer science and engineering, and the negative blowback this potential expansion received from faculty members not in those fields. Former Stanford President Gerhard Casper worried that the new campus may “reinforce the cliché that we are science and engineering and biology driven and the arts and humanities are stepchildren.” This reminded me of Professor Robert Faggen’s letter to former President Pamela Gann, signed by other faculty members from our Literature Department, protesting the establishment of the $200-million Robert Day School of Economics and Finance and arguing that it may “distort the college into a single focus trade school.”
Professor Faggen’s and other faculty members’ concerns are justified; CMC’s focus on economics can be demonstrated by its student body. Nearly a third of CMCers major in Economics and 60% of the Class of 2014 went into an economics-related field. While we pride ourselves on our strong programs in this field — which we should — this shifts CMC’s academic dynamic towards “practical education” rather than traditional liberal arts. But, is this the right path? By catering more and more to the econ/finance world, are we compromising an education that’s just as (if not more) useful in life?
This specialization in economics, finance, and consulting does not exist in a vacuum. Yale and Stanford have dealt with this same issue — even if it’s not with the exact same disciplines. Look up the alumni from Kenyon, a liberal arts college known for their writing and acting programs, and you’ll see a high number of alumni in those fields, just as CMC has many alumni in the econ/finance world. Surely, Harvey Mudd feels as though everyone does the same or at least a very similar thing. “They’re a specialized engineering school,” you say! Yes — Harvey Mudd is a different case from CMC and its economics focus. But when does a specialty or focus become a narrow, defining scope?
“Speciality,” especially CMC’s, has become more and more intertwined (and perhaps conflated) with “practicality.” The two tenets of higher education, “practical” and “classical” liberal arts, are now engaged in a fight for dominance, and CMC faces the problem of which direction we want to take. CMCers often use “practical” synonymously with “education for a job” or “vocational.” This understanding of practicality is troubling; teaching for a job is no more or less practical than teaching for living a well-rounded life. For an institution that prides itself on “liberal arts in action,” we seem to eschew the “liberal arts” part of that slogan. Even our seemingly-humanities majors are tinged with practical notes: consider “Science and Management” or “Philosophy and Public Affairs.” They tie in ways to relate these majors to career paths. While vocational education itself is not bad, it’s the notion it creates: that the point of college is to get a job, above all else.
This type of teaching is job-specific, not life-specific. We’re veering away from the traditional pedagogical learning to be a well-rounded human and venturing towards learning to get a “good” job. Although the two are not mutually exclusive, a well-rounded education as opposed to a vocational one provides skills, understanding, and knowledge in many fields. The liberal arts tradition was to provide undergraduates with the necessary analytical skills and critical thinking required of any job or trade. And we’re going to start failing at this soon if we continue on our trend.
Even if the message of a “practical” education was absent from our majors and dogma, week-by-week we are directly told what career path to pursue. The Career Inform email, while useful for telling us what’s going on, is as diverse in the jobs it highlights as CMC’s socio-economic breakdown.
Through the Career Inform, we’re constantly reminded of the boundless opportunities available in the fields of finance, consulting, and accounting. In some cases, we’re directly handed the opportunities. Just the other week, I got an email from McKinsey inviting me to a coffee chat despite that I have not expressed any interest in consulting. A friend of mine told me she got invited to a Goldman Sachs interview even though she is not a finance person… for a finance job. As she put it, “We may not be handed jobs, but we are quite literally handed interviews.”
While there are information sessions and alumni panels in a multitude of sectors and industries, there aren’t as many jobs advertised for other fields. A majority of jobs featured are in finance, consulting, accounting, or something in that arena. Even though the Career Inform details some CMC alums’ successes as writers, environmentalists, or engineers, there are few to no jobs listed in those sectors.
Even though no CMCer is guaranteed a job that’s posted in the Inform, it’s certainly easier to apply for the opportunities listed than to conduct a potentially exhausting search in fields that aren’t. Perhaps you don’t even know what career you want; having these easy-to-apply options delivered to your inbox every week can definitely nudge someone either way. About a month and a half before summer break, I panicked over not having an internship, and lo and behold, I found my very internship through a CMC email. To be perfectly honest, I wasn’t interested in the internship in the slightest — but I appreciated how easy it was, knowing there was an internship available and having the application sent straight to my inbox.
The high number of jobs in the limited sectors of finance, consulting, and accounting, coupled with the increasing number of economics majors, illustrates the prevailing notion that CMC supports a practical education above all else. Even if no administrator or professor has come out and said it, it’s hard to deny that CMC as an institution favors or skews towards this vocational sort of education, even if it does so unintentionally.
While I’m glad that CMC wants to provide its students with the skills and means to get prosperous jobs after graduation, I don’t think this should be our goal. Finance, consulting, and accounting are great professions. But, they’re not the only laudable ones.
CMC’s website lists CMC’s goal to “educate its students for thoughtful and productive lives and responsible leadership in business, government, and the professions.” But how much should we give in to this part of our mission and identity? Do we wholeheartedly accept it and continue on this path? Or do we try to diversify and add more programs or fund more fields outside this scope? Especially as more and more colleges are barreling down the path towards specialization and vocational education, what’s CMC to do?
I don’t know what the correct answer is, but here’s the thing: It’s up to us. We’ve reached an identity crisis. We can either be passive, not stop what’s already happening, or we can speak up if we don’t want this and let our voices be known and create change. No one can choose what’s next except for us — the students. So if you have an opinion, make it known. Reflect on our current academic and career landscape. I want us as a campus to make it known to Career Services that they need to expand the scope of the jobs they send us. Realize that the actions you take — whether applying for jobs or the Robert Day Scholars program simply because our institutional framework skews towards it — only furthers the idea that this vocational educational focus is okay.