With a BA in Sociology

September 2, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

“How much of what you do on your job did you learn in law school?” I asked.

Morning coffee on the porch of a small inn across from the boardwalk at Ocean Grove earlier this week. My fellow guest – our families had just met, there on the veranda – was a lawyer, in charge of licensing for a healthcare group that includes some important hospitals in New England. He smiled and shook his head.

“None of it.”

“On the job?” I asked.

He nodded.

Then he said, “What I learned in school was how to learn, how to think.”

Which is exactly what I tell students when they ask the inevitable question, “What kind of job can I get with a sociology degree?” I have a standard answer: “College is not trade school; it’s not job training.”

Montclair students usually don’t believe me, and I can’t blame them. They know that they need a college degree to get a good job, so they figure each major must teach something that employers find useful. Different majors, different employers. So I say, “Ask your parents where they got the skills and knowledge they need for their jobs. Chances are they learned 95% of it on the job.”

I used to make an exception for post-BA professional training – law school, med school, etc. Now I’ll have to revise even that.

“What you’re learning in college,” I say, “is how to learn, how to think, how to read, and how to write.” Then I add, “You can do that in any major, so you may as well choose the department with the ideas or courses or professors that you really like or where you’ll have the best time.”
Making important school choices based on the enjoyment of learning?? That probably clashes with just about everything in their experience of the previous twelve years. In any case, I usually get the feeling they still don’t believe me.

My colleague Yasmein Besen-Cassino, who sometimes teaches statistics, has a different and probably more effective strategy. “Go to Monster.com and enter ‘SPSS,’” she tells them.


Michelle Hogan said...

I totally appreciate this thought - the how to read and learn and write argument about college, but it's sad to me that kids don't have these skills before college. I think it's tragic that we believe people need to learn how to learn. I'd way rather spend my $100k on my kids learning how to do what they want to do instead of learning how to learn how!

Jay Livingston said...

Michelle, In some ways I agree. But I also think that, ideally, learning how to learn (and to read, write, and think) continues even after we finish school. I certainly hope it does for me, and I graduated a long, long time ago.