I recently read the book A Perfect Mess: the Unlikely Ascendancy of American Higher Education by David Larabee. It’s very good – in fact, the first two chapters are for my money the best short history of pre-1900 American higher education ever written. I’m going to refer to this book a few times over the next couple of weeks. But today, I want to talk about an engaging little passage he penned about how business came to view college (that is, American “college”, our universities) as an indispensable pre-requisite to white collar jobs.
There was a time, of course, where this wasn’t the case. Well after the Civil War, medicine and law remained jobs filled through apprenticeship rather than something that required higher education. Andrew Carnegie famously said he had known few young men who were not injured by a higher education system that stamped the fire and energy out of them. The conversion of men like Carnegie into boosters rather than detractors was key to higher education becoming a mass phenomenon. If business had kept that attitude, the system today would look completely different (mainly, it would be much, much smaller).
So what was it that changed? According to Larabee, business leaders came to appreciate college because of changes both in the structure of higher education and the structure of business. Business changed because management – that is, the general ability to apply verbal and cognitive skills to organizations problems – became more important. And higher education provided this training in three ways.
First, the importation of German ideas about how to run universities led to an increased emphasis on giving students broad assignments which they would need to work out on their own. This gave graduates experience with the kind of autonomy and problem-solving needed in the modern workplace. Second, the need to navigate the complex formal and informal social, academic and administrative hierarchies of the university gave graduates the skills needed to navigate the similarly complicated hierarchies of modern corporations. Third, the socialization process that colleges put students through to promote institutional loyalty (the arrival of intercollegiate sports at the turn of the twentieth century was a big help here) was also important: businesses value loyalty highly.
It’s a persuasive theory, and I think it also speaks to what may be wrong in the college/business interface in the present-day as well. If you look at universities, they’re still training and socializing students much as they always did: problem-solving, hierarchy-navigating, and loyalty-inducing (granted, that third one has been much more prominent in American and Japanese institutions than it has elsewhere, but the point is this hasn’t become any less important over time no matter what the starting baseline). But business has changed. Partly, it’s about speed but I would argue it is more about permeability. In an age of flatter corporate hierarchies, young trainees are required to deal at a fairly early stage to deal with actors outside the companies in order to get things done. They are doing front-line sales and communications more often. They are dealing with external suppliers more often. Success in the new business world relies not simply on navigating the internal environment, it requires a lot more horizontal networking and engaging with external hierarchies.
And this, I would argue, is something higher education – be it in colleges or universities – hasn’t yet figured out how to impart. And it’s not entirely clear that the Work Integrated Learning fad du jour is a solution, since all that really does is transpose a student temporarily from one hierarchy to another. (To be clear: I’m not saying WIL isn’t valuable, I’m just saying it doesn’t solve this particular problem).
I should emphasize that I’m not carping here. It’s not obvious to me how universities could actually give students this kind of experience, and many may well say either that it’s impossible or that they shouldn’t try. Fair enough. But just remember that if institutions can’t perform their training/socializing role to employers’ satisfaction, there’s no reason to think higher education will continue to receive the public support it currently does, either.
Given that, working out how to give students those kinds of experiences – either in class or through extra-curricular activity – is probably worth a ponder.