I’m wrapping up my fourteenth year of teaching at the college level, so while my own children aren’t quite ready for the advice Jeffrey Selingo offers in There Is Life after College, I appreciate his efforts to demystify the post-graduation process. Yet while the title and subtitle (What Parents and Students Should Know about Navigating School to Prepare for the Jobs of Tomorrow) emphasize the collegiate experience, Selingo’s book talks about education and adulthood beyond the academy. As he states,
The longer life expectancy for children born today means that we can chart new routes to adulthood that space out opportunities in different ways from how we planned in the last century. We no longer should think of college as one physical place we go to at one time in our lives at the age of eighteen. (23)
The notion of “human capital” implies that character is yet another commodity, not something to be nourished because of its inherent goodness, but something that can make us more marketable.No doubt for many of Selingo’s harried readers, hopeful for some edge in a difficult admissions and economic climate, the sense of open-endedness here can induce anxiety. But while there’s practical advice from Selingo, this text also reminds readers that character counts.
In the chapter entitled “What the Economy Needs, What Employers Want,” Selingo explains that
too many students depend on their undergraduate years to spoon-feed them the experiences that will shape them for the future. . . . You really can’t blame them. Up to this point in their educational lives, school has been managed for them and, in the era of No Child Left Behind, increasingly so . . . The advent of “my child can do no wrong” helicopter parents has exacerbated the problem, forcing a lowering of standards and, therefore, performance. (32)
The underlying message here reminds me of the thesis to Adrienne Rich’s famous speech “Claiming an Education.” It requires students and professors to take each other seriously. And maybe it’s the end-of-semester grading crunch talking here, but it’s easy to see Selingo’s point about how “soft skills” (238) differentiate between candidates. My students are bright and accustomed to seeing high grades. What they sometimes fail to recognize is that they’ll be in a graduating class (and an applicant pool) with lots of similar test scores and GPAs. It’s not those numbers but their character traits that make them good employees.
Selingo focuses a lot of this book on employability, to my slight discomfort, I must admit. But I say that as a professional academic who’s made a career out of the ivory tower, and I sympathize with my students and their families who want some employability to result from an expensive degree. I appreciate that Selingo doesn’t place the onus of job training fully in colleges’ hands, even while he urges them to move into the twenty-first century. There’s another reason that parents are included in the audience of this book, and my hunch is that Selingo realizes too many of these traits are nigh impossible (not to mention much more painful) for professors and employers to teach than for parents. As Selingo advises,
If you are a college graduate hoping to get off to the right start, you will need to show you have acquired this set of often overlapping skills: curiosity, creativity, grit, digital awareness, contextual thinking, and humility. (37)
For the audience Selingo intends, life after college is not dependent on what we know but on how we relate our knowledge to ourselves, our world, and those around us.
There are a lot of practical considerations in this book; I won’t try to relate them all here because they are relevant primarily for the audience listed in the subtitle. For that audience, I recommend reading the book. I also think it’s worthwhile for parents of younger children. Reading books like this and interacting with my college students helps me keep a long view in mind as a parent. I don’t want to raise children who go to college and think it’s the professor’s responsibility to provide books for them. It’s why I’m a little troubled by the examples in the chapter entitled “Learning to Launch”:
A job teaches young people how to see a rhythm to the day, especially the types of routine work teenagers tend to get. It’s where they learn how to show up on time, keep to a schedule, complete a list of tasks, and be accountable to a manager who might give them their first dose of negative feedback so they finally realize they’re not as great as their teachers, parents, and college acceptance letters have led them to believe. (161)
Don’t get me wrong. These are all great skills and, I would agree with Selingo, essential to adulthood. I just think that if we’re waiting until kids are teenagers, these lessons are arriving way too late. We can look to many of the culprits of my second quote (schooling, parenting, and educational policies) to determine why children aren’t learning these skills as children. It’s not education—and it’s not love—to forgo discipline.
Many of the examples Selingo provides feel foreign to me. I have no ambition for my children to attend Ivy League schools or to design the next technological marvel. Whether my children harbor those ambitions for themselves remains to be seen. Whatever their future might hold—and Selingo is honest on the point that we really don’t know what “the Jobs of Tomorrow” will be—they’ll need the skills and experiences that contribute to what the author calls “human capital” (xvii). I’d call it character. But the fruits of the spirit that guide Christian character formation differ from “human capital,” too. A healthy tree bears healthy fruit that gifts both the giver and the recipient. It’s profitable in the spiritual realm as a matter of cultivating our souls and no doubt sometimes works against our profitability. The notion of “human capital” implies that character is yet another commodity, not something to be nourished because of its inherent goodness, but something that can make us more marketable. Selingo speaks to the real need of finding and keeping a good job with an urgency I understand and respect. I want that for my children and for my students, too. But I want more for all of them as well.