‘Pre-Professionalism,’ Or, We’re All Vo-Tech Students Now

In the New York Times’s “Room for Debate” section last week, five writers from within academia tackled the question, “Too Much Free Time On Campus?” The question was sparked by findings that students are spending, on average, ten fewer hours studying per week than they were a few decades ago.

The responses represented mainly the standard fare. Students, as customers, should be satisfied. Kids these days are busy. Services are vital to attract youngsters. And so forth.

One response was slightly different. Raphael Pope-Sussman, a student at Columbia, made the argument that it’s not just students being “busy” that has resulted in fewer study hours, it’s that they’re forced to be “pre-professionals”.

As a student, [a college newspaper] editor may be studying less. But he’s not working less. Many editors at the paper hope to pursue careers in journalism. They aren’t lazy; they’re just pre-professional. . . .

Every year this country pumps out more and more college graduates for fewer and fewer good jobs. Today, you go to college to learn, but you also go because you need a diploma for almost every stable career.

You can mourn the disappearance of an ivy-covered Arcadia where America’s youth once went to discover Big Ideas. But don’t blame the modern college student because he’s spending less time with his schoolbooks.

He’s not lazy. He’s not incurious. He just wants to find a decent job after graduation.

We’ve known for some time that the modern college experience is at least as focused on skills and training as it is on inquiry and study. The writer’s perspective is an important one, I think, because it represents the reigning orthodoxy for how most young people view academia.

And worse, I’d venture to say many of them got the “get a degree to get a job” mentality from their parents.

It’s not an unreasonable argument. No one would dispute that students can benefit from the combination of active work and active study. But that seems closer to apprenticeship, and altogether different from the ideal of a college as removing a student from the concerns of the world for four years in order to obtain a deeper sense of that world.

What’s the point of “commencement” if those gown-glad youth were “pre-professionals” all along?

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