The strategic planning process at the College reached an important milestone recently when a message appeared in the inbox of our idea collection site, sp[at]grinnell[dot]edu. The message stated “your mailbox is full.” We arranged for the account to be enlarged. Nevertheless it is impressive that members of our community sent so many ideas as to inundate the mail account. Many of these ideas have to do with student postgraduate careers and success, both from the perspective of advising the undergraduates and the recounting of personal career paths by alumni. Ideas range from stick-to-the-knitting (we send students to graduate school; keep doing that) to boosting other forms of professional education (law, medicine) to presenting and preparing students for careers in the private sector, and so on. Embellishing and diversifying student career preparation is a serious challenge. It requires both a change in attitude and an ability to forecast. The attitude change is necessary because we have traditionally privileged those careers that are decorated with self-sacrifice and social action. Even within our strength, preparing students for graduate school, we have been accused of producing students who are copies of ourselves. The ability to forecast is necessary to avoid preparing students for a future that rapidly becomes obsolete. Futurologists declare that new college graduates may have five different careers before they retire, or they may have a job that has not been invented yet. Attempting to anticipate a narrowly defined future may lead to an undesirable Lamarkian attitude, where the students acquire characteristics that served their mentors in the past but are not useful for the future.
An excessive concern about post-graduate jobs has sometimes been called careerism, and has often been set as an opposite pole to the liberal arts. The attitude change that our strategic planning may require is not one of having learning tracks for bankers or stock market analysts, or for that matter bakers and candle-stick makers, but one in which we recognize that career potential may be embedded in an authentic and vital liberal arts education. We need to find a synthesis between the impulse toward careerism, which treats the Grinnell experience as instrumental toward an unknown future, and the liberal arts, which treat the Grinnell experience in the here-and-now. Perhaps we should look at the skills we value in students, such as those mentioned in a venerable text, about thinking clearly, speaking and writing persuasively, and critically evaluating ideas, as skills that operate on a positive feedback loop, meaning that the more you have the more you get; for example, writing well opens more opportunities to write while having more opportunities to write opens more opportunities to write well. Thought of that way, the core skills of the liberal arts education become self-feeding, growing toward excellence and variety. This life-long learning, while remaining always in the here-and-now for each person who truly feel that they are pursuing knowledge for its own sake, produces the depth and breadth of raw material from which a career, even one that has not been invented yet, may be shaped. – David Lopatto