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School to work: Is it working?

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University of Georgia professor Peter Smagorinsky is a frequent contributor to the AJC Get Schooled blog.

His theme today is whether college courses, no matter how carefully tailored or nuanced, can equip graduates to arrive at a new job ready to go.

I had a related discussion with a manager who oversees 230 computer firm employees. Her company does not expect its hires to arrive job-ready, she said. But it expects new workers to have the capacity to learn complex concepts.

By Peter Smagorinsky

I recently returned to Kenyon College for my 40th class reunion. It was great to catch up with old friends, brag about our kids, laugh about the old times, and once again experience Kenyon and its glorious campus.

I visited with one old pal who is now a senior law partner on the West Coast. He said that his job included mentoring recently hired law school grads in the nuances of the profession. Being a lawyer involves so much more than law schools teach: how to gain a client’s trust, how to gain an adversary’s respect, how to work on a legal team. They need to know how to practice law, rather than simply to know about laws.

Mentoring new hires is important in many complex professions, and I was interested in what new lawyers need to know, and how they are taught in the context of law firms rather than law schools. Much of this work is, he said, accomplished in apprenticeship settings, with experienced lawyers modeling the navigation of the social world that drives legal work.

This reliance on on-the-job training led me to wonder, How well did law school prepare him for the actual practice of law? The answer: not at all. The respectable law school he had attended used the pervasive case study approach based on the analysis and discussion of legal cases, which involved law students in hypothetical legal reasoning. A large gap, however, remained between this sort of theoretical, academic argumentation and how lawyers go about the actual practice of law.

I assumed, then, that law school prepared him to pass the bar exam, the final barrier between a student and a career. When I asked about how well his classes had prepped him for the exam, however, the answer was surprising: No, it didn’t prepare him to pass the bar, not at all.

As one interested in high-stakes exams, I then asked, Well, does passing the bar have anything to do with becoming a good lawyer?

None, he said. Ultimately, law school and the bar exam had very little to do with actual lawyering. That, he said, is why firms must devote so much time to mentoring new hires into the esoteria of practicing law in settings that require so much more than hypothetical reasoning skills and the ability to recite laws and precedents.

Now, he is a business/transactional lawyer, a type of work that is less adversarial than the litigation that provides the focus for much law school training. As my friend acknowledged, although litigators require considerable knowledge in the subtleties of courtroom preparation and conduct, the disputation involved in the case study approach does provide at least the ground work for arguing cases effectively.

As an educator, I was struck by this acknowledgement that law school and the bar, both legendary in their rigor, were so disconnected from legal careers more oriented to negotiation than conflict. I say this as one who works in a field, education, in which our university programs are widely believed to provide inadequate preparation for the classroom, even with extensive field experiences and student teaching under the mentorship of an experienced teacher.

My purpose with this essay is not to criticize law schools, or lawyers, or law firms, or laws themselves; nor is it to defend colleges of education, although I believe that they are much better than many people assume. Rather, it’s to take the phenomenon that work realities are difficult to prepare for through academic courses, and shift the discussion to a new premise common among current policymakers: that only academic subjects that prepare people directly for jobs are worth funding in public schools and universities.

Here, for instance, is Gov. Rick Scott of Florida: “We don’t need a lot more anthropologists in the state. . . . I want to spend our dollars giving people science, technology, engineering, and math degrees. That’s what our kids need to focus all their time and attention on, those types of degrees, so when they get out of school, they can get a job.”

This highly pragmatic view of the purpose of education is shared by many Get Schooled commenters who assert that courses in K-12 schools and universities that don’t lead directly to jobs should not be funded by taxpayers. They often share Gov. Scott’s view that only STEM programs provide legitimate job preparation and thus merit public investment.

But let’s say that I get straight A’s in all of my science, technology, engineering, and mathematics courses. Will I then be able to enter the workforce directly and successfully?

I suspect not. Educational theory and accompanying practices often get warped when encountered by teeming classrooms of 30-40 kids, and knowledge of legal reasoning gets refracted through the prism of a wily courtroom opponent who can confuse a witness and complicate a testimony. I can only speculate, but I have doubts that solving abstract math problems in school will lead directly to a successful career as a Bell Labs technician.

 It’s hard to say exactly what careers young people are preparing for when they enter a college major at about the age of 20. Kenyon College is justifiably famed for its English department, but to my knowledge I’m one of a total of four people from my class of ‘74 who ever became English teachers — one at a university, and three of us in schools. The vast majority of English majors I went to school with went to law school, went into business careers, or did other things altogether.

An education, it turns out, serves purposes other than direct job training. In college I got a broad liberal arts education that engaged me with history’s greatest thinkers and helped me reflect with care about the human condition. I consider that to have been great training for the life I’ve lived, and indirectly the career I’ve undertaken. I had no idea in high school or college that I was preparing for a career as a teacher and ultimately as a researcher; those decisions came later.

Assuming that school serves only as a site for job training misses the point of learning and the complexities of work. I think it’s far too costly an assumption to engrave in educational policy.