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Lessons for Parents Advising Their College-Bound Students : Fortunately, most high school grads will listen these days. They must be encouraged to get a well-rounded education.

February 11, 1996|GAIL K. HART | Gail K. Hart is associate dean of humanities for undergraduates at UC Irvine

In the last five years or so we have witnessed a revolution in students' attitudes toward higher education. To put it very simply, students are listening to their parents. For members of a generation that repeatedly was enjoined not to trust anyone over 30, the importance of this development cannot be over-stressed. Parents always have offered their high school and college-age children advice, but students are now actually taking that advice, and this is influencing the configuration of the university. Parents now have a strong voice in the character and delivery of education.

Along with this increased participation in higher education comes a serious responsibility. If our daughters and sons are going to take our advice, it needs to be good advice and this is where I see a major problem developing. Many parents have recommended the narrow pursuit of a career to their children--at least this is what students are telling me--and have discouraged and even prohibited them from studying subjects that lie outside what they perceive as career training. Their message is "Get an education. Get a job." That's my message too, but I see things somewhat differently. Let me explain.

Education is necessarily pluralistic--if you only know geology, for example, you are not an educated person, regardless of how much geology you know. The Germans have a term for such a person: Fachidiot. "Fach" is a particular field of endeavor like mathematics or linguistics and we all know what an "idiot" is. So the mathematician who ignores poetry and the linguist who knows nothing of history are intellectually impoverished; that is, they are idiots. Now, idiots don't get good jobs--we'll make an exception for the occasional genius, whom we will call "hypertrophic" rather than idiotic--and if they get jobs at all, they tend not to hold on to them. Employment is not what it used to be, when Kodak or some other well-established and coherently organized corporation hired a young man or woman and gave them security and a benefit projection right up to retirement. The terms have changed and in order to survive in a profession or even as an employed individual, one needs the skills and imagination fostered by a pluralistic education.

Such a pluralistic education should strike a balance between the hard sciences and the humanities, social sciences and the arts. Students need to know about the physical world and the methods of inquiry into its mysteries (or into its commonplaces). They also need to know about music and language and to develop the analytical skills necessary to describe and interpret these phenomena in their various forms. These skills are job skills and no student should be discouraged from acquiring them. Imagine, for example, all that your student could learn from acting in a play: acquaintance with a major cultural artifact (the play); communication skills (voice projection, timing, the ability to address an audience); the ability to inhabit a character with a different perspective, which can be very useful in understanding business partners, medical patients and legal clients (to invoke the professions that parents most often recommend to their children); the ability to work with a diverse group of people (cast and crew) toward a common purpose. This example can be multiplied by the number of disciplines, subjects and topics available at a given college or university.

Some parents consider this kind of educational development a luxury that they or their children cannot afford. Tuition and fees are already high and they are increasing at an astonishing rate. It may come as a surprise to some parents, but most employers and institutions want students who are truly educated in the sense I described above. Medical schools look for well-rounded educational backgrounds, business schools actually like applicants who have not majored in economics or business--the message here being a businesslike "diversify." Law schools don't want applicants who have no science or math skills. The bottom line is: Just because you don't plan to read poetry for a career does not mean that you should not read poetry as preparation for a career. You should.

It used to be that career-minded students would come to college and, because of exposure to required breadth courses, eventually abandon their single-subject agendas and gain the broad knowledge that they needed to find fulfilling employment or further training. Now I am seeing more and more students who are afraid to do such things because they don't want to offend, disappoint or defy their parents and sometimes because they fear reprisal.

In extreme cases, reprisal takes the form of the withholding of support and sometimes the apparent withholding of love. When I counsel such students, I tell them that their parents want them to be happy and that they sincerely believe that this particular course of study will eventually make them happy. Yet, in many of these cases, the parents are obstructing education and unwittingly diminishing their children's chances for success in careers that they, the parents, have selected for them.

What is more usual is that students are consulting their parents and listening to their parents when it comes to choices in higher education, and I think this is an encouraging development. Students need the wise counsel of those who love them and support them. Parental advice about higher education no longer falls on deaf ears, so it is extremely important that parents be informed about the best ways for their children to get both an education and a job.

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