Global Citizens or Global Capitalists?: Exposing the Growing Affinities Between the Conn and the Corporate World

On Friday, Mar. 11—the same day on which Steve Lambert’s public art piece “Capitalism Works for Me!” was installed in front of the College Center—the student body received a campus-wide e-mail from Dean of Academic Support Noel Garrett. In it, Garrett invites us to apply to new a career workshop, which his office will sponsor during the upcoming summer recess. With an excited and optimistic tone, the e-mail begins with the following, attention grabbing text:

“Are you prepared to market your personal brand? Ready to give boardroom presentations? Know how to finance your ideas? It’s time to develop your personal game plan for success.”

Garrett’s message is just the latest manifestation of a steadily increasing trend on our campus and on university campuses nationwide in the past decade or so: the marriage of collegiate academia with career services departments that aims to facilitate a student’s absorption into the labor market as they progress through their four years of university education. As a senior who will graduate in just three short weeks, I am increasingly troubled by the sustained impacts of this pedagogical and practical partnership. In article that follows, I will aim to problematize this model.

Since the mass layoffs and increasing unemployment rates during the economic recession of 2008 plagued the country, the correlative incline of undergraduate tuition rates has seriously buffeted both students’ and parents’ anxieties about the facility with which new grads can obtain entry-level employment at the conclusion of their college years. When asked in a recent interview with the Voice whether this trend could be observed on our campus, Dean of the College Jefferson Singer responded, “There is indeed an expectation from parents and students that there be clearer, more tangible outcomes regarding careers for the students who graduate from the College.”

Results of this increased anxiety include greater media speculation during recent years about many majors traditionally popular at liberal arts colleges; anthropology, art history, philosophy and English are among the most frequently cited. Majors such as economics, government and international relations, on the other hand, have been lauded for their imagined ability to give students skills that will translate into substantive career possibilities and potentially higher earnings.

Eight years after a subdued climate of austerity descended upon the nation, though, a more stabilized economy and labor market have likely allowed direct pressure on students to simmer slightly. But campuses, along with American society at large, may have deeply internalized the consequences of the initial scare.

As is common knowledge on campus, the Office of Career and Professional Development

(known until recently as CELS) equips students, regardless of their major, with the skills and resources they need to find internships and, ultimately, appropriate career paths. From budding dancers to future historians, students affiliated with every major have access to advisers who will assist them with the onerous task of finding the right job.

If told from this angle alone, the story of career training at Connecticut College could conclude here with a celebratory ending. Yet it is obvious that Conn students and those at similarly minded liberal arts institutions do not spend their four years of education solely meeting with career advisers to plot and plan for post-grad possibilities. Instead, most of students’ time on campus is occupied with work that will not teach them the nuances of giving a boardroom presentation, tips for how to behave on a conference call or the best way to solicit philanthropic donations for a non-profit organization’s fundraising drive.

This facet of college life is, of course, academia. And although academic programs define why thousands of students occupy a shared university space, some now consider them in competition, or even at odds, with the goals of campus career centers and other professional departments that work with students.

In recent years, critical attention has turned toward addressing how a crisis in the neoliberal market has affected the educational mission of universities across the United States. Researchers Sheila Slaughter and Gary Rhoades have commented on some of these tendencies in their article “The Neoliberal University,” published in New Labor Forum in 2000. Slaughter and Rhoades claim:

“Part of moving toward the market has meant at the margins turning away from the liberal arts toward professional and vocational curricula […] By adopting a market model, colleges and universities have actively promoted a restructuring that both favors professional and high-tech fields that service monopoly capitalism and makes general education the primary function of the liberal arts. This channels students away from areas likely to be the most critical of marketization and creates a two-tier faculty structure in which faculty in liberal arts teach primarily general education courses and have fewer upper division courses, less time to pursue research and fewer resources.”

Enter the new Connections curriculum, ratified by College faculty last spring. The new curricular framework claims to create a new trajectory for the liberal arts tradition for students with new needs. Set to be officially implemented in fall 2016, the curriculum has been heavily praised for its commitment to integrative, interdisciplinary learning; local and global engagement; and allowing students to apply classroom skills to real world jobs.

Continually espousing the rhetoric that the entirety of the Connections curriculum is advancing the liberal arts into the twenty-first century, many College faculty and staff members have vigorously defended it. In a story published on the Connecticut College website last spring to announce its implementation, for example, Associate Director of CISLA Mary Devins was quoted saying, “Connections offers an integrative and engaging structure that students will embrace and that will give them the tools, skills and vision to prepare them for success in a world that requires flexibility, adaptability and an in-depth understanding of what it means to be a citizen in a global society.”

Not all faculty and students at the College, though, are necessarily on board with with the idea that the curriculum should be gearing students for such career-focused, market-oriented skills. In fact, each of the faculty members the Voice interviewed for this article was highly critical of the need to integrate career-oriented skills into the College’s curriculum and question whether the definition “success” the program seeks to achieve might actually be defined solely within a capitalistic framework.

Professor of Anthropology Catherine Benoit reflected, “I have heard colleagues talk about the need to prepare our students to integrate into the US labor force, but for several reasons, I do not directly consider career preparation when I craft syllabi and curricula. I am not sure how we can determine what students’ needs are in terms of career preparation.” Benoit later elaborated, “That being said, we as an entire faculty might anticipate what would make students successful in their life: being  educated, creative human beings who embrace critical thinking, dialogue and discussion. This is the feedback I hear from successful alumni.”

Benoit’s comment raises fundamental questions in this debate: what are the goals of classroom study if the skills it teaches do not allow students to gain particular vocational and professional skills that would facilitate their admission into entry level jobs? What is the purpose of a bachelor’s degree in anthropology, philosophy, studio art—or most other liberal arts disciplines for that matter—when prospects for employment in these specific fields are few, unclear, and usually restricted to those who have pursued graduate-level coursework?

The Connections curriculum claims that it will shift the College’s educational paradigm by molding it after the inherent intersectionality of many of the social, political and economic phenomena confronting the planet today. The program, which is deeply interdisciplinary, will purportedly encourage students to take courses in a range of disciplines to deeply investigate a single theme, question or problem. From this desire the broadly conceived “pathway” was born. “Public Health,” “Social Justice as Sustainability” and “Peace and Conflict” are a few examples of pathways that have already been proposed and approved the the faculty.

In step with the College’s mission statement of educating citizens for a global society, Dean Singer proposed in his interview with me that the task of the new Connections curriculum is also to encourage effective citizenship. This categorization situates students in an inevitably political framework. A citizen is someone who, along with having certain responsibilities to society, is also confronted by the demand to make critical decisions that will impact its future. These decisions might include, for example, deliberations over current presidential candidates.

In her Voice article “Pathways to Nowhere? Critical Reflections on the New GE,”  Aparna Gopalan ‘17 contests whether the curriculum fulfills Dean Singer’s claim that the curriculum will produce effective citizens. She writes, “Connections seems to want to impart a politically neutral set of “skills” to students that they can use to achieve whatever they like, only tempering this vocational “skill learning” by mandating thematic commonalities to a student’s general education.”

Professor of Education and Director of the Center for the Comparative Study of Race and Ethnicity (CCSRE) Sandy Grande hinted that the national trend toward new mandates for specific, professional, skill-related outcomes in higher education may not actually create more ethical and effective citizens.

In a late April interview with the Voice, Grande claimed that curricular reform at the collegiate level could be an effect of the same forces that implemented common curricula in K-12 schools and created new, privately-funded charter schools. Grande told the Voice, “The Connections curriculum is profoundly interdisciplinary and a turn in a good direction. But the process by which is is being implemented may be driven by the speed of the market.”

Analogously, the Connections model claims to bolster the practicality of academia: to translate thinking into doing and leading (to borrow three of President Katherine Bergeron’s favorite terms) and to prepare students for entry-level jobs. Is there not, at some point, an inherent tension in these two facets of the curriculum if, as Gopalan claimed two weeks ago, that a successful model of critical education is “a story of rupture, discontinuity and political reorientation?”

In the case of Connecticut College, it appears that the path forward is contrary to this reality Gopalan has described. At present, there is an unequal distribution of new initiatives that support career preparation and vocational training versus those that reaffirm a commitment to critical, interdisciplinary learning. Although new ConnCourses claim to foster this kind of inquiry across disciplines, their effective implementation would require most faculty members to have training in fields beyond those in which they conduct their research. Interdisciplinarity could merely be a code word to hide the fact that ConnCourses are really just broad, general and watered down surveys of material with which students become vaguely familiar, but never fully master or critically engage.

In the context of preparing students for careers after college, one might ask whether vague and general knowledge all that is required for “success?”  It would be hardly surprising if the answer is yes, given that many of the the current movers and shakers in the implementation of the College’s new curricular framework are not even faculty members themselves but administrative deans and professional staff members who do not directly teach students in classroom settings.  Dean Garrett confirmed this fact in our mid-April interview, saying, “The Academic Resource Center and Career Services Office are going to be in the middle of the implementation of the new curriculum. The Career Office has been instrumental in creating all of the pathways that have been proposed and approved.”

Indeed, many new initiatives of the Connections curriculum align with preparing students to be employees, not informed citizens. Last fall, for example, many first-year seminars were team advised by both faculty members and career counselors in a pilot program aiming to cultivate students’ career-based aspirations beginning in their first semester at the College. The Office of Sustainability provides the opportunity for student fellows to earn as many as  four academic credits a year for completing professional internships with office staff. In Spring 2017, the department of Hispanic studies will offer a four credit “Business Spanish” course for students who want to pursue international finance or transnational entrepreneurship.

Another, more tangible example of increasing emphasis on professional skill sets will arrive in the fall. Set to be offered next semester is a series of accounting courses taught by Dean Garrett, who holds a doctoral degree in psychology. He cites student input as the prime reason for this new offering, saying “The course comes out of students wanting the information and students leaving internships and wishing they had had a better understanding of business, accounting, and finance because if they did, they probably would have gotten more out of the internship.”

He suggests that, pending the success of the course, the College would consider offering other, more vocationally-inclined courses in fields such as marketing in the future, claiming: “Depending upon what kind of feedback we get from the accounting class and what students ask for, I can’t see why we wouldn’t keep developing this kind of different program.”

Dean Singer has lauded the accounting initiative and the extent to which it will soon contribute to an Entrepreneurship pathway that is being developed by staff members in the ARC, the Career Services office, the Center for Arts and Technology and the Departments of Economics, Computer Science, Art and Dance. Singer reflected, “We will help students who have a business orientation be able to find more immediate skill development orientation while they’re taking their courses here.”

The biggest contradiction in institutional rhetoric about the new Connections curriculum becomes immediately clear when assessing the unequal emphasis placed on new initiatives catering to vocational pre-business skills, such as the accounting classes and Entrepreneurship pathway, in comparison to the more critical learning that faculty members claim comprise the foundation of their course curricula.

Could there be a divide in the College between those who want to chart a new future for “practical idealism”—a phrase coined by Wesleyan President Michael Roth and used by Dean Singer in our interview—and those who view the university as a medium through which to leverage critiques of such institutions as neoliberal capitalism, government corruption and other similar societal ills?

Cornel West, who appeared on campus last Thursday at the commemoration of the CCSRE’s tenth anniversary, spoke forcefully against this tendency in both higher and secondary education in his talk entitled “Race and Justice Matters.” He championed “higher education, not market driven education” that “ is created to serve integrity, decency and honesty.” West later elaborated that “the complexity of the world is something we must confront rather than escape and deny. […] When the aim of higher education is conformity and complacency, you produce professionals who are cowardly to confront real issues but are always ready to cash in.”

As the Connections curriculum continues to be rolled out, those at the College with a critical eye must confront the ways in which its pedagogical framework is mimetic of capitalism itself. That is to say that the product it purports to offer might merely be a flashy facade meant to obscure and conceal the inherent injustice in its modes of producing the knowledge it wants to impart.

The College community must grapple with whether the Connections that this curriculum wants students to make are among disciplines or actually just between themselves and the market. If indeed “capitalism has no ethics” —  as associate professor of English Courtney Baker forcefully claimed in unpublished remarks at last Tuesday’s faculty debate on capitalism — the College will need to ask what the implications of a curriculum that offers students new ways to pursue the market will be for an institution that claims to educate ethical citizens for a global society. 

For years, the university has been one of the most important institutions in American society that is capable of leveraging critiques and proposing alternatives for the unjust distribution of power and privilege within society itself. At a time of change and innovation within the academy, those in administrative and academic leadership positions should bolster this function of the university, not undermine it. 

Education, after all, will never be a product one can buy. It is not an instantly gratifying, tangible outcome. Contrary to some faculty and staff members’ current programs, it is not a form of entertainment. In its most ideal form education is a tool by which we can understand the world and, with the right attitude, choose to make it a more liveable place. Neoliberal capitalism, instead, champions the advancement of the individual and is attuned to possibility for profit at others’ expense.

If Connecticut College wants to accomplish what its educational mission claims to be, it must provide students with an academic climate that will nurture effective, even radical, citizenship rather than become the mirror image of and training camp for an economic system that has already failed to serve so many in this country and elsewhere.