Why must businesses lie about what they want in graduates?

This in the New York Times today about universities trying to become “relevant”.

The grotesque thing about all this is that it’s the result of awful hiring policies at businesses. Businesses say they want one thing – people who can communicate, think clearly and independently – and yet they hire another, students with “relevant” experience, whether a business related degree or lots of summer internships. If they want communicators, clear thinkers and creative people, they should not be pressuring schools to do away with liberal arts and pure science in favor of supposedly “practical” subjects.

At an undergraduate level, these “practical” subjects teach students a fleeting set of briefly relevant skills rather than habits and practices which might last a lifetime. When children learn to read, they don’t learn to read company reports. They learn to read things which stimulate their minds and a spirit of inquiry. It should be no different at undergraduate institutions. If you want to breed a generation of articulate, imaginative thinkers, the very last thing you should be doing is shoe-horning them all into undergraduate business studies, where they are taught an inexact science couched in banalities.

I wish colleges would fight back harder against this. Students are having what should be one of the greatest periods of intellectual growth in their lives stunted and the academy is getting its chain yanked by the HR divisions of American business. They say they want creative people because it makes them sound more attractive as companies. Their actions suggest they hire narrowly skilled drones. Are they lying? Or are they just too blinkered to figure out where the creative, communicative people are? And too chicken to hire them?

For anyone who hasn’t seen this, Steve Jobs’ 2005 Stanford graduation speech makes a wonderful case for the benefits of an unconventional education.

Some highlights from the NY Times piece:

“Consider the change captured in the annual survey by the University of California, Los Angeles, of more than 400,000 incoming freshmen. In 1971, 37 percent responded that it was essential or very important to be “very well-off financially,” while 73 percent said the same about “developing a meaningful philosophy of life.” In 2009, the values were nearly reversed: 78 percent identified wealth as a goal, while 48 percent were after a meaningful philosophy.”

“We believe that we do our best for students when we give them tools to be analytical, to be able to gather information and to determine the validity of that information themselves, particularly in this world where people don’t filter for you anymore,” Dr. Coleman [the president of the University of Michigan] says. “We want to teach them how to make an argument, how to defend an argument, to make a choice.” These are the skills that liberal arts colleges in particular have prided themselves on teaching. But these colleges also say they have the hardest time explaining the link between what they teach and the kind of job and salary a student can expect on the other end.”

“The Association of American Colleges and Universities recently asked employers who hire at least 25 percent of their workforce from two- or four-year colleges what they want institutions to teach. The answers did not suggest a narrow focus. Instead, 89 percent said they wanted more emphasis on “the ability to effectively communicate orally and in writing,” 81 percent asked for better “critical thinking and analytical reasoning skills” and 70 percent were looking for “the ability to innovate and be creative.”

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