Last night I returned home from the AAC&U (American Academy of Colleges and Universities) annual meeting in Washington, D.C.. I was on a professional high after four intensive days of sessions on general education, learning communities, assessment, and some favorite buzz acronyms:  SLOs (student learning outcomes) and HIPs (high impact practices). The conference was humming with a recent report about how, in the long term, liberal arts graduates do better on the career path. The seminars and workshops allowed me to network with people from a diverse range of higher ed institutions and I learned about struggles both university-particular and higher ed-universal. I was fed and inspired, ready to return to meaningful work at my college.

As I settled on my second flight from Detroit to South Bend, I decided to pull out one of the books I had taken along on this trip, one we are having all of the Goshen first year students read in their Learning Community: Smart Moves for Liberal Arts Grads by Greenwald and Curran. I was in the mood for this book of stories about the career paths of liberal arts grads.

But then Boston appeared at my side. A gregarious young man, he began asking me about my trip the minute he sat next to me. I said I was returning to Goshen following a work conference and returned the question. He had been visiting his father in Raleigh, North Carolina, but was heading home to St. Joseph, Michigan. I asked him if he was in high school or college and he said, “No I graduated high school a couple years ago. I’m designing my own education. I don’t want to build up debt by getting a college degree. I’m studying only what I’m interested in.” As he began to tell me about attending trade school for audio engineering, I quietly slid the book back in my bag. We talked about his current efforts to make contacts and find opportunities in audio production while he works in food services. He also hopes to expand on his own musicianship and plays electric guitar in a couple bands.  His next educational goal is to study with a luthier he has heard about in Savannah, Georgia.  We talked for a while about his interest in understanding how instruments are crafted and how too many musicians, including me, are disconnected from the inner workings of their instrument.

I gently nudged at the possibility of a college degree, even stepping outside my Goshen-centric role and telling him about the music technology program at Ball State, but he was firm — no way is he taking on that debt and taking classes that don’t directly teach him what he needs to know for his goals in audio engineering and guitar-making.  I let it go and affirmed his seeking out of experiences, telling him that career experts talk about how important it is to “stay in motion” with your goals even if it takes a while to get there.

I wonder how it will work out for him.  Probably just fine, if he can keep getting the training he needs and find plenty of opportunities to put what he learns into practice.   College isn’t for everyone, and sometimes college lacks the best of Boston’s apprenticeship-oriented approach to being educated.  But I’m also thinking about all those learning outcomes of a liberal arts education the conference affirmed for me — inquiry/analysis, critical and creative thinking, communication skills, information literacy, civic engagement, ethical reasoning, global awareness and more.  Will his self-design of education give him these skills?  I wish Boston’s inquisitive mind and outgoing spirit could find a home for a while in a college setting.  That he doesn’t think it makes sense for him is something I respect, but it leaves me pondering how many young people don’t even consider college because of the cost and debt crisis in higher education.  This was a topic at the AAC&U conference, but not one that seemed to be receiving as much energy on the research and policy front as other concerns.

I’m glad this detour stopped me in my lofty tracks for a while. Thanks, Boston.

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