Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Do we mislead college students about how to pursue their careers and lives?

David Brooks says we do, in this excellent column.

The whole thing is worth reading, but here's a sample:

[T]heir lives have been perversely structured. This year’s graduates are members of the most supervised generation in American history. Through their childhoods and teenage years, they have been monitored, tutored, coached and honed to an unprecedented degree.

Yet upon graduation they will enter a world that is unprecedentedly wide open and unstructured. Most of them will not quickly get married, buy a home and have kids, as previous generations did. Instead, they will confront amazingly diverse job markets, social landscapes and lifestyle niches. Most will spend a decade wandering from job to job and clique to clique, searching for a role.

No one would design a system of extreme supervision to prepare people for a decade of extreme openness. But this is exactly what has emerged in modern America. College students are raised in an environment that demands one set of navigational skills, and they are then cast out into a different environment requiring a different set of skills, which they have to figure out on their own.

Worst of all, they are sent off into this world with the whole baby-boomer theology ringing in their ears. If you sample some of the commencement addresses being broadcast on C-Span these days, you see that many graduates are told to: Follow your passion, chart your own course, march to the beat of your own drummer, follow your dreams and find yourself. . . .

College grads are often sent out into the world amid rapturous talk of limitless possibilities. But this talk is of no help to the central business of adulthood, finding serious things to tie yourself down to.
Similarly, Eliezer Yudkowsky (who writes the blog called Less Wrong) has observed "how completely ridiculous it is to ask high school students to decide what they want to do with the rest of their lives and give them nearly no support in doing so." What kind of "support"? For example, "spending a day apiece watching twenty different jobs and then another week at their top three choices, with salary charts and projections and probabilities of graduating that subject given their test scores."

Why do we give such bad advice to people who look up to us? It's not that hard to stop and notice what's wrong with the advice. After all, Brooks's column probably didn't take long write, and it certainly isn't difficult to read. If you feed students the "find yourself"/"limitless possibilities" message because it projects an appealing image of yourself — as someone who's encouraging and inspiring to young people — you may be helping yourself more than you're helping them.

RELATED: Don't "do what you love."

ALSO: Advice to prospective undergraduates who want to make the world a better place.