A few years ago now, a friend sent me xerox of chapter 5 of Derek Bok’s superb book Our Underachieving Colleges: A Candid Look at How Much Students Learn and Why They Should Be Learning More. The purpose was to get me to think about whether there was something interesting to be said about the role of philosophy in a university education. Up till that point I had been somewhat interested in issues of justice in access to university, but not very interested in what universities do, or should do, once students get there. But one thing led to another, and since getting hold of a devouring the entire book, which is I can recommend thoroughly, I was hooked. I’ve been meaning to review it here for ages, and still may, but for the moment I thought I’d highlight one of the passages that has changed one small thing that I do as a professor.
Among the goals that Bok thinks universities should have for students (his main interest is in elite, or as I’ve recently seen them referred to, “Medallion”, colleges, though,much of what he says applies further down the status order of 4 year colleges) and that he thinks they underperform at pretty seriously, is preparing them for a career. He does not mean that colleges fail to provide the credentials necessary for a prestigious career (they certainly do that) nor that they fail to provide relevant education (though he is a little bit skeptical about that). Rather, he thinks that they fail to provide adequate guidance. The consequence is that students are rather ignorant of what different careers involve, what they are likely to do within them, how those careers contribute to the society, and what contribution they would make to their own wellbeing. His particular bete noir (ironically perhaps) is that smart young students with a public service ethic, as well as those who just don’t know what to do with their lives, go to Law School:
For students who begin their legal training hoping to fight for social justice, law school can be a sobering experience. While there, they learn a number of hard truths. Jobs fighting for the environment or civil liberties are very scarce. Defending the poor and powerless turns out to pay remarkably little and often to consist of work that many regard as repetitive and dull. As public interest jobs seem less promising (and law school debts continue to mount), most of these idealistic students end by persuading themselves that a large corporate law firm is the best course to pursue, even though many of them fund the specialties practiced in these firms, such as corporate law, tax law, and real estate law, both uninteresting and unchallenging…..
Imagine the social value that would be produced if these students were, instead, going into teaching and eventually leading urban schools and school districts. As Bok says, we do not yet have a case that letting students apply to Law School by default is bad for them: if they end up enjoying the life more than they would enjoy the more challenging and less well compensated life of a teacher then at least they have been well served. But:
Almost half of the young lawyers leave their firm within three years. Many complain of having too little time with their families, and feeling tired and under pressure on most days of the week. Many more are weary of constantly having to compete for advancement with other bright young lawyers or troubled by what they regard as the lack of redeeming social value in their work. Within the profession as a whole, levels of stress, alcoholism, divorce, suicide and drug abuse are all substantially above the national average.
Bok makes as compelling a case as is possible in the absence of evidence of a kind which, I suspect, would be very hard to gather; his observations certainly fit exactly with my own experience.
So how has this made me change my behaviour? I have written a lot of letters of recommendation for students to go to Law School. Getting a letter of recommendation from me requires submitting a package of materials and meeting with me to discuss one’s goals and the process. Before reading Our Underachieving Colleges, despite my serious reservations about the profession (I’ve known a fair number of lawyers, and I’ve known only one who really enjoyed the job), I never tried to dissuade anyone. I still don’t (just for the CT reader whom I did dissuade, you know, don’t you, that I was not trying). But I do ask them, straight out, “why do you want to go to Law School?”. I am amazed how many students sit there dumbstruck, having never seemed to have given it any thought. I also ask whether they have talked to some lawyers about their jobs, and am similarly amazed how few have done so. Of course, by the time they are asking for a letter it is a bit late to be trying to help them think about a career. But the responses I’ve had suggest to me that Bok’s thesis holds for my institution at least—and that the way we go about thinking about preparing students for a career is extremely laissez faire—much more so than is good for the students, and more than they, who mostly would appreciate some gentle, disinterested, guidance, want.
I’m curious how other people approach writing letters for Law School (or Medical School, or whatever), and whether my experience is idiosyncratic.