Labor Day and the Start of the Semester

This year our first day of the semester is also Labor Day, which has certainly caused grumbling among some of us who have to show up for class on Monday rather than enjoying the last long weekend of summer. And of course it’s not just a matter of showing up Monday. Syllabi need final preparation, lectures must be written, and advisees are looking for guidance.

But on this Labor Day we should remember those who won’t have to report this week at all because there aren’t enough jobs. With official unemployment stubbornly remaining between 9% and 10%, there are many around us who are suffering from the poverty and despair of not being able to find work. Bob Herbert’s column in the New York Times on September 4 underscores the plight of a group of custodians recently laid off from their jobs at a luxury office building in Los Angeles. Closer to home, the Middletown food bank Amazing Grace reports a red alert because of the low level of supplies on their shelves. Right here at Wesleyan, we have made a small number of position reductions over the last 18 months. Each job is personal not just institutional, and each position elimination was painful.

As students plan their courses for the fall, and as faculty plan their curricula, how should we connect the reality of labor and unemployment to the broad liberal learning we so value? It can be done very specifically, as with Claire Potter’s Frosh History Seminar on Poverty in the United States, and it can be done more generally by thinking through how a liberal arts education is related to how one will support oneself. As I have said many times now in various venues, I believe a liberal education has never been more relevant to work in the world than it is today. This has little to do with the specific choice of concentration by an undergraduate. I was recently talking to a Wes parent who told me that in interviewing over a thousand people for jobs over the years he has never asked what somebody majored in during college. Instead, he has been looking for the ability to think creatively and critically, to imagine possibilities and to solve problems. This is the kind of ability cultivated by liberal learning.

A liberal education teaches that rigor and innovation, far from being in tension with one another, can often go hand in hand. Patience and diligence — practice and method — are qualities developed across a liberal arts curriculum. The American pragmatists celebrated inquiry as a mode of experience, and teachers and students today continue to believe that we must reflexively look back on our own inquiries to assess the learning process and whether the results are relevant to life beyond the specific questions being pursued. Self-criticism need not be navel-gazing. The practical is not the enemy of the true.

For years I have been saying that an undergraduate education should help students to discover what they love to do, and to get better at it. I’ve recently realized that it is important to emphasize a third goal: to develop the capacity to share what one loves to do (and has gotten a little better at) with others. This third goal, let’s call it “engagement,” connects what one has learned with what one can do with the communities to which one belongs.

The education that our students begin on Labor Day doesn’t promise a specific kind of job, but it does promise to expand one’s possibilities for meaningful work after graduation. Learning to learn also means learning to work, to engage with others in getting things done, creating opportunities and solving problems. Engaging with others also means being aware when we can be helpful to those in need, those who may not have the same opportunities we are enjoying while at the university.

My hope for Labor Day and the beginning of the semester is that through study and engagement we will eventually learn to create more jobs so that the perils and anxieties that mark this year’s holiday won’t become permanent parts of our economy and culture.

[tags]unemployment, Labor Day, Bob Herbert, New York Times, Amazing Grace Food Pantry, Claire Potter, Poverty in the United States, liberal arts education[/tags]

Making Wesleyan Their Own

This morning Kari and I will greet first-year students and help them move into residence halls around the campus. The class of 2014 was culled from over 10,600 applications (a 29% increase over just two years ago), and it promises to be a talented, caring, creative and hard-working group. We’ve already been meeting some of the international students who are part of the frosh class. Most Internationals arrived Sunday, and at our dinner the following night we talked with folks from India, Turkey, Japan, China, France and Thailand (to name only a few of the countries from which our new students hail).

Fall athletes are also back, and from the look of some of the folks I’ve been running into on campus, many spent at least some of the summer getting in shape for an intense season. I’ve met with the families of the football team, along with the new coaching staff, and they seemed poised for an exciting fall. Over the summer I learned that volleyball and swimming garnered national team academic honors. I take great pride in the scholarly accomplishments of so many of our athletes.

Faculty are also back on campus, and they will soon be meeting with advisees to talk about schedules, choices of major and generally how to get the most out of one’s time at Wes. Professors have been working during the summer on research, much of which will inform their thinking as they begin the semester. The virtuous circle of intellectual work that connects teaching and scholarship will be in evidence throughout the term, as the classroom becomes a place of inspiration for student and teacher alike.

Today I will be greeting many parents who will be filled with mixed emotions as they drop off their students. I look forward to checking in with them again with shared pride as their sons and daughters make Wesleyan their own.

[tags]class of 2014, international students, athletes, volleyball, swimming[/tags]