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"In the city of my birth, I had a dream..."
An Academic's Dilemma: Are flexible skills a virtue we should be selling? 
27th-Oct-2010 10:06 am
When I was a high school student, I bought into the belief that the arts, humanities, and social sciences--an American liberal arts degree, in short--was the right sort of preparation for what James Vernon calls in his exhaustive post on the privatization of the UK academy the "flexible labor market." A liberal arts degree "trains you for nothing but prepares you for everything"...or so goes the mantra.

Now, as an occasional undergraduate supervisor in sociology at the University of Cambridge, I tell my supervisees the same thing. A decade from now, you might not remember the difference between the two types of solidarity. But knowing how to make good, persuasive arguments, reading critically and incisively, expressing oneself well in speech and writing--these are all skills you will need no matter your career. "I'm not training you for a job," I tell them, "I'm preparing you for the job that no one can train you for because it doesn't even exist yet."

There's only one small problem: I'm not sure I believe it anymore.

After receiving my bachelor's degree, I spent several years precariously employed without stable benefits. I became a freelance writer, and in that way my liberal arts background served me well. But was a tough time, particularly when I needed emergency medical care I could not afford. I wish that misery on no one. So yes, I was a good little critter in the big bad neoliberal world, and it nearly killed me...twice.

Is this the sort of world I would reproduce through my teaching? Is this the sort of world I would wish upon my students? Not so much.

This I know: To justify the arts, humanities, and social sciences on the basis of how it prepares you for the world of work is to buy into precisely the same market-driven ideology that threatens their existence in the academy in the first place. As scholars of the liberal arts, we need to produce an alternative discourse of the value of our disciplines that does not invoke the rhetoric of flexibility or markets. If we cannot, then we're already lost.
27th-Oct-2010 07:18 pm (UTC)
That's an interesting view. I've never thought of the liberal arts as preparation for work or the real world. Perhaps the view differs from country to country. Here the sciences and math are considered good/profitable for the work market and the humanities are thought of as existing in lofty ivory towers.
27th-Oct-2010 08:50 pm (UTC)
'Cept for maybe classics, I don't think it's normal in the United States to assume that humanities and social science subjects at the undergraduate level equal a life in the ivory tower.
28th-Oct-2010 04:25 am (UTC)
I think the ability to write well is a valuable skill in many jobs, but I don't think it's recognized as such during the hiring process. If it's recognized by employers at all, it's recognized later, after one has already been working for them a while.
28th-Oct-2010 12:15 pm (UTC)
Well, of course getting a job is different that succeeding in a job you've already got...
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