Thursday, April 28, 2011

Standing firm, awash in ambiguity

I'm beginning to get more questions about what my daughter wants to study in college.  The questions, you'll notice, assume that she will go. They also assume she knows now (well before her senior year in high school) what she wants to study.  And right below the surface is another assumption--that there is a direct correlation between college major and profession or career.  

According to national surveys, (employers) want to hire 22-year-olds who can write coherently, think creatively and analyze quantitative data, and they’re perfectly happy to hire English or biology majors. Most Ivy League universities and elite liberal arts colleges, in fact, don’t even offer undergraduate business majors.
The article, a collaboration between The New York Times and The Chronicle of Higher Education, describes many business schools as the last hope for students who are unable to perform elsewhere and questions the rigor of the typical B-school education.  And it gives me pause, for reasons personal and professional.

My undergraduate education was obtained at a private liberal arts college. I was well-prepared for the career choices I've made, most of which had little to do with my undergraduate major.   In contrast, however, is a comment I overheard a student in my class make to a class-mate; he was indignant that his instructor "doesn't even have a Ph.D. in business."  This assumption that the undergraduate major is of more value than demonstrated ability (regardless of degree field) is intriguing...and flies in the face of reality.

We look for easy answers.  We assume a simple linear model, starting with high school subject matter excellence, then early career choice, selection of the college major aligned with that career choice, and a happily-ever-after model for success.  The only problem with this model is that it rarely works.  

I teach at a B-school in the hope that it matters.  Some days, I wonder.

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