Because of the scale and complexity of our world, economics in the twenty-first century is impersonal and often merciless. In many cases, economies of scale and strong competition give businesses a rather stark choice: either choose the most economically efficient path or fail. If a computer, machine, or robot can perform a job more efficiently than a person, that job disappears from the workforce. If labor can be outsourced to a cheaper labor market, it will be. The experience of history provides many examples, and these realities are unlikely to change.
The combination of scale and complexity with the recent rise in technology results in a rapidly changing job market. Not only companies but whole fields of work are in flux. According to Forbes, “Over the next twenty years, we are likely to witness some of the most significant disruptions to the workforce and work as we know it in recent memory.” Furthermore, according to the United States government, the average American switches careers three times in his or her life, works for ten employers, and stays in each job just over three-and-a-half years.
Given this situation, career-oriented education can generally only provide specific training for the next five years. As time passes, detailed information learned in college will become less significant, either because of job changes or changes in the field. For the career-minded, then, college acts as a gateway, and selecting the proper gateway is a purely economic calculation. Will the tuition and time spent be worth getting into the first door of a desired career field?
Of course, Gutenberg believes that career should not be the sole goal of education. But even if it were, a liberal arts degree is an excellent investment well beyond the first job. In twenty years, specific knowledge gained in college may fade, but skills and attitudes will remain. A nurse may not recall the content of a discussion about Plato but will certainly retain a cultivated skill of listening to a patient with care and understanding.
The current climate in higher education emphasizes the gateway, and the college degree is the socially agreed upon entrance to the next step in one’s career. It turns out, however, that the historical and social circumstances that gave rise to this system are eroding. Nevertheless, colleges and universities are keen to exploit it. How often have we been told that those who have a college degree make more money than those who don’t?
As higher education has transformed itself into a gateway to wealth, comfort, and social status, costs have risen. Yet those costs have not gone primarily toward higher quality education but rather to reputation-building and social-status. Everyone realizes that college costs have risen far faster than the cost of living. The question we ought to ask is not only “Why this increase?” but also “What benefit is actually being offered for the higher cost?” Gutenberg refuses to be drawn into this mad game of status and reputation. We seek to nurture students’ souls. And it just so happens that such a focus also provides an excellent preparation for the workplace.