Yes, jobs are important, but…
When I graduated from McGill, I didn’t have a dream job waiting. To pay the bills, I worked for months in a cosmetics factory that specialized in bargain-priced products. (A friendly aside – you may want to think twice before purchasing any heavily discounted nail polish or lipstick. Just trust me.) I became a whiz at foil stamping mascara bottles.
On weekends and evenings, I took on freelance writing assignments for an assortment of low-paying publications that almost no one had ever heard of (generally with good cause). One of my editors took notice of me and offered me a full-time job at McGill. Twenty-three years later, I’m still here.
My university education played an important role in preparing me for my career. My analytical abilities, such as they are, were forged at McGill. Still, the path to a good job wasn’t straightforward.
What brought this to mind was a recent cover story in The Walrus. The essay, which caused a stir in university circles, claimed that university arts and science programs are producing graduates who face bleak futures toiling as baristas or car rental agents. Many of the white collar jobs that once existed for these graduates are disappearing, according to the piece, the victims of technological progress or economic retrenchment (the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada disputes this, noting that the number of jobs filled by university graduates in Canada has more than doubled since 1990).
“[Students] are encouraged to study what they want, rather than to focus on what the economy needs,” the authors of the Walrus piece argued. “If [students] choose the humanities or basic science when the market needs engineers and nurses, the economy suffers, and so do they.”
Well, I think everyone suffers if we end up with engineers and nurses whose hearts aren’t really into what they’re doing, who only became engineers and nurses because they thought it would be the safest path to a good job.
Do universities have a responsibility to help prepare their students for life after graduation? Of course they do, and the flourishing internship program in the Faculty of Arts, the subject of one of this issue’s features, offers a useful road map for how to go about it. Students pick up invaluable hands-on experience, but only as part of a broader educational goal.
Even the professors in McGill’s professional faculties would bristle at the notion that they should simply focus on job training. Yes, law students learn to pick apart contracts, but they’re also challenged to probe the legal system for its flaws and shortcomings. Yes, medical students are taught how to mend broken bones, but they are also asked to critically examine what the role of a doctor should be.
Looking back at my own education, I suspect that many of my favourite courses wouldn’t have passed muster if they had been judged strictly on the basis of their practical utility. English professor Curtis Cecil’s course on Victorian satire, for instance, and how he vividly brought works by Wilde and Shaw to life through his gloriously over-the-top, one-man performances. Or how Marike Finlay honed critical skills by devoting a class to the semiotic dissection of an episode of Knots Landing. Or how Peter Ohlin’s infectious enthusiasm for Ingmar Bergman opened my eyes to the glories of world cinema.
Did these courses make me more employable? I’m not sure. But they did make me a better person and that was well worth the time I had to spend at the cosmetics factory.