There is a general perception that going through the formal education process is sufficient for career success. If you follow the standard formula of secondary school, followed by some form of post-secondary education, whether through trades, college, or through the university, you should have the necessary tools in order to enter the workforce and perform well in most situations. While this might be true to some degree, I’m willing to bet that if you were to ask people of their thoughts on this process, you’d be met with a certain level of skepticism. Yes, there are some critical problems with how we view and use higher education, but on the whole, I think the missing piece is this: the role of higher education should be to give students the ability to think and learn for themselves (often concurrent with learning some kind of job-market skill).
The value of higher education is the exposure to ideas and of ways of thinking about things. By exposing students to ideas and problems they’ve never encountered, you are giving them experience that they can use to navigate life after the classroom. I think most people get too hung up on the job-market skills and end up de-emphasizing the other stuff referred to as “the humanities” or “breadth electives.” What is important is for students to be able to cross over the threshold of their vocational training and learn to navigate in systems of knowledge that they aren’t comfortable with so that they can learn to gather information, define problems, and test solutions for things that are applicable to them.
I have a small example of this in action for myself. Recently, the provincial college system was brought to a halt during a labour dispute. Once the teachers came back to work, everyone set to work on figuring out how to carry-on and salvage the remainder of the semester. One of my tasks was to track student requests for accommodation once it was determined that the holiday break was being scaled back to allow students to complete the fall semester. If students had made previous plans for travel, asking them to cancel their plans (which often was at a huge financial loss to the students) was something the college did not wish to do. So, the goal is to see where we can find solutions for students missing class in the revised schedule. My job is to track the requests from students and track the faculties responses.
I wanted a simple way of tracking the information electronically on spreadsheets, and avoid copying huge numbers of cells worth of information into emails. My solution was to set up a database. I’ve never created a database before (only used existing ones), so I turned to resources available for employees at my work to teach myself the skills. I set up a simple database, laid a form over it to allow for a cleaner user experience, and created standardized Word documents with placeholder values that would automatically call information from the database into the document for me to email out streamlined messages to faculty and students.
I shared this database tool across the college, and have been receiving very positive feedback from people who are using it. I even recorded a 30-minute tutorial video on how to use the database and manage the information, then hosted the video online for other employees to use at their discretion.
My educational background is in philosophy, which is quite different from data process management. However, through philosophy I learned skills such as how to self-direct my learning, how to define problems, and how to test solutions. These skills are what has allowed me to come up with a way of managing all the information coming at me, and how to teach that system to others for their own use. Being able to help others, and sharing something that they value, makes me feel really good and engaged at work, and I’m happy to be able to help others do their jobs more easily.
I understand that students often don’t have the luxury to think broadly about how their skills fit in with a larger view of pedagogy, but I think it’s important to remember that the specific processes, tools, and systems we learn at school are the micro expressions of overall deeper ways that we live, understand, and view our lives. Taking a narrow view of the value of education tends to miss the proverbial forest for the trees. The point of higher education is not just about vocational training and preparing people to enter the economy, but instead it’s main purpose should be viewed as a way of preparing people to become better problem solvers.