Having gotten overly involved in a debate at Ask A Manager regarding colleges' and professors' "failure" to prepare students for the corporate world, I'm posting my thoughts here, so I can stop spamming the comment thread there. (It's not just AAM where I've seen these arguments, by the way. It's just that they happened to hit with particular force while I was reading that post and those comments.)
The gist: recent graduates are poorly equipped to enter today's job market and/or are lacking in specific job-related skills. The claim: professors are to blame for not teaching them the skills they need to succeed and/or teaching them things that are harmful. My response is below.
It's Not Our Responsibility
It's popular wisdom these days that you need to go to college if you want a good job. Increasingly, the wisdom is right in the sense that a lot of employers assume that a qualified candidate is one with at least a B.A. or B.S., and some fields, like medicine, law, or academia (more on this in a bit), require more than that. However! Saying that you need a college degree to get a good job is not the same thing as saying that a college degree guarantees you a job, or even that it is about getting a job. Rather, it's that there are qualities present in people who have gone to college that are appealing to employers.
And yes, college administrations and marketers may well play up this angle, because many of the folks out there with money to give tend to be of the mindset that things are only worth funding if they offer a "good return," with that defined in terms of "how much profit" and "what I get out of it"; older appeals to improving society, or benefiting humanity, or making good citizens don't hack it so much. That doesn't mean that those things should be abandoned, however. Indeed, the argument can be made that it's even more important that colleges and universities resist the monetization and corporatization of everything, because if they don't, who will? But this is an argument for another time, and one that's been made well by other people, so back to the main point.
It's Not Our Job
Implicit in the idea that college prepares you for a professional career and in the complaints about "clueless" professors instilling "bad" habits in their students is the idea that professors should be teaching students about "professional" (meaning corporate -- again, I'll get to this in a bit) behavior. No. Professors at most colleges are not there to teach corporate-focused skills, with some exceptions (like those in MBA programs). Your English teacher is there to teach English. Your mathematics professor is there to teach mathematics. Your art teacher is there to teach art. They are not there to teach students how to: wear a suit / write cover letters / use a fax machine / write thank-you notes / prepare resumés / use MS Word / network / interact with co-workers / respond to your boss's criticism... and all the other myriad little things you pick up by working someplace. That is why their classes are called things like "English Literature during the Reformation," "Calculus 103," "Ceramic Studio Techniques" and not "Office Etiquette," "Job Search Expectations," or "Using Computers in Business."
Now, if you're lucky, some of the things they teach you will indeed transfer into the corporate workplace, but many or even most of them will not. This does not mean they "failed" to do their jobs.
Where's Business in All This?
A lot of the complaints seem to take the form of managers complaining that their new employees don't know how to do.... fill in the blank here with an industry-specific task. Hello, that's your job, managers. You know your business, you know your needs, you have the experience and the expertise. Just as I don't expect my students' employers to teach them how to write a research paper in history, you shouldn't expect me to teach them how to write a memo on supply distribution chains. Again, that's your job.
Where Are Students/Employees in All This?
There's frequently this attitude that if students or recently-graduated employees are messing up, it's the fault of those who taught them (other things!), as if they were passive blank slates incapable of thinking for themselves or adapting to new situations. It's funny; I've never seen a student have trouble understanding that the way they write in an academic paper is not how you write in a letter to a friend or family member, and most of them are capable of grasping that the way you write an academic paper in English is different from the way you write an academic paper in History or a lab report in Biology. Yet, somehow, when confronted with the task of writing in a corporate, business context, they are incapable of recognizing that what served them well in college might not be appropriate in this situation? I call bullshit.
(And I'll lay you odds that the people who complain to career counselors "But that's how they told me to write in college" are the very same ones who protested "But that's how they told me to write in high school" when they were in my class. I wouldn't be at all surprised that they whined in similar fashion when they were expected to write in pen rather than crayon the first time.)
Second, there's the assumption that they have those bad habits (whatever they are) because they were taught those habits, as opposed to the far more common situation (based on my and my colleagues' experiences) where the student persists in writing bad, sloppy, and generally incompetent papers despite our best efforts to teach them how to write good ones. Is it a surprise that such students then later prove unable to write well in other contexts? But, oh, no, it's because "college writing" means "bad writing" and they were misled. Or something.
What Is "Long"? What Is "Bad"? And Whose Fault Is It, Really?
I also see a lot of bemoaning professors' asking students to write "long papers" as this spoils them for the demands of the business world, where concision is the norm. Compared to a one-paragraph memo or a two-bullet-point PowerPoint slide, I suppose a five page paper (the length I see cited most often) is "long." (Pause for all the writers of monographs and dissertations to laugh.) But that completely ignores context and function. Which is more concise, for example: (a) a one-sentence paraphrase of the two sentences the boss spoke in yesterday's meeting, or (b) a one-paragraph summary of the argument of a 400-page scholarly text? Those "long" papers are the length they are because they are (a) summarizing significant amounts of content (both primary and secondary) and (b) they aren't just summarizing content - they are also making persuasive arguments.
Or put more briefly, those "long" papers are just the length they need to be to accomplish their goals, just as a memo or a cover letter is the length it needs to be to accomplish its goals.
Now, it's true that some students misunderstand page requirements and end up puffing and padding their arguments with multi-syllabic words pulled from the dark recesses of the thesaurus in an effort to meet them, but those are the students who get Cs and Ds on their papers. They are not being taught to write like wordy puffballs; they are choosing, on their own, because they are ignorant and/or lazy, to write that way, not because someone stood up at the lectern and said, "You must employ pompous language at all times. Oh, and use lots of semi-colons, too." Pretty much every single professor I've ever known has complained about "thesauritis" and padding and wordiness, so, damnit, don't try to pin student prolixity on us.
What Is "Job Training"?
Not only are there multiple misunderstandings and misassumptions about the nature of what professors do, but I'd argue that there are also a bunch of unstated assumptions about what a "job" is, and what you need to know to get one or succeed once hired. For one thing, a lot of what professors teach, even in the most caricatured version of the ivory tower intellectual, is, in fact, a form of job training. It's just that the job is teaching whatever subject the professor specializes in, rather than, say, being an administrative assistant or an HR director. When it comes to training students in the culture of academia, the professional expectations, the skill sets needed for success, etc., most professors do a pretty good job. Some departments are more or less attentive to things like interviewing skills and other such job-searchy things (viz, this blog!), but if you're planning to go into a profession that requires publication to advance? All those "long academic papers" are precisely what you need to know how to do.
Moreover, most of the complaints I've seen haven't been about new graduates' lack of industry-specific skills but about either (a) their job searching skills, (b) their understanding of office culture, and (c) their inexperience. So you get the gnashing of teeth about things like their inability to dress properly for interviews, their bad cover letters, their informal e-mails, their acting like they know more than their more-experienced co-workers, and so on. That's not really job training. That's socialization. And, again, this is something that students should be taking on some responsibility to figure out themselves. Do you really want to waste time in your Political Science class learning that you should wear a suit to interviews, and that, yes, if your manager tells you to fetch coffee you should fetch coffee? Or would you rather learn about how the European Union interfaces with the United Nations and NGOs in sub-Saharan Africa?
Related to this is the whole whine about "useless" degrees and "useless" classes. Setting aside for the moment the argument that not everything in life should be valued solely in terms of how it affects your salary prospects, the question I'd ask is useless for whom? A person planning to go into accounting and tax preparation probably won't get much in the way of practical career skills or information from an art history class -- but a person planning to go into graphics and web design had better well know the difference between a Picasso and a Rembrandt, at least if they plan to advance in their career. So that media professor whose classes some students find useless or inappropriate relative to their preferred fields may very well be the professor whose class on reporting and ethics proved the crucial jumping off point for a future Pulitzer Prize winning journalist.
There. How's that for a long paper?