Some great responses from readers came in this week!
In response to the post about the book collection, one reader asked plaintively, “How is it possible that with an entire boomer generation retiring in droves, there are no old books’ homes where they can send their banished collections?”
The idea of an “old books’ home” made me smile.
Another reader referred me to this piece by Kevin Dickinson, which covers both the Japanese concept of tsundoku and Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s notion of an “anti-library.” The common denominator is the salutary effect on intellectual humility that being surrounded by interesting but unread books can have:
“It challenges our self-estimation by providing a constant, niggling reminder of all we don’t know … These shelves of unexplored ideas propel us to continue reading, continue learning and never be comfortable that we know enough.”
I like that a lot better than some other analyses. My piles of unread books aren’t monuments to overspending or failures to read enough; they’re reminders to be humble. That’s much better.
Retired law professor Jethro Lieberman sent this piece in which he retired and moved, forcing him to reduce his book collection to a mere 650 cartons. Compared to that, I’m an amateur.
In response to the piece about secret shoppers, one former secret shopper wrote with a story of a time that it took him seven continuous hours, in person, to register for a class at a college, and that was with skipping financial aid. Apparently that feedback helped the college streamline its processes, which has to be good. He also commended secret shopping as wildly fun; it’s a sort of ethical hacking for folks who aren’t hackers.
I would think that financial aid would be a uniquely difficult area for secret shoppers, though, since there’s so much documentation involved. They’d have to create aliases with fairly rich background documentation, like Social Security numbers, to get the full picture. It’s not like just showing up for a campus tour. There’s a great book waiting to be written on this one.
Finally, on integrating career navigation into the early stages of courses of study, one reader pointedly noted that in many fields, the career options vary so widely that it would be difficult to offer guidance with any specificity. Additionally, many faculty in liberal arts fields have never worked in corporate America above an hourly level, and even that may have been in previous decades, so they might not be particularly well suited to helping students decode the market that exists now.
Yes and no. It’s certainly true that the job market has changed drastically over time, and that folks who haven’t been on the market in decades may not be reliable guides. It’s also true that many liberal arts fields tend to lead to careers that aren’t closely related to their content. For instance, I’ve met a surprising number of former music majors in academic administration over the years. Happily for me, the ability to carry a tune isn’t a job requirement.
That said, I still see value in helping students early on learn about job searches (which can also apply to internship searches), the basics of résumé writing and even about their own options. Many students simply don’t know what’s out there, and it’s not their fault. Filling in some of the gaps in social capital strikes me as consistent with the mission of a college, even if it isn’t necessarily consistent with the role of each individual professor. That may take different forms in different institutional settings, but that’s okay. The point is to enable students to make their way in the world. If students feel better about their prospects, the anxiety that sometimes gets in the way may subside a bit. That’s all to the good.
Thanks again to all of the wise and worldly readers who wrote. I’m consistently impressed and gratified by the thoughtfulness and quality of the responses. It gives me hope.