Why grad schools should be more like steel mills

I emerged from six years of higher ed with the ability to debate Marxist dialectics, describe the realist paradigm, and deconstruct the Hobbesian state of nature.  The number of of times I used this $200,000 knowledge on the job is exactly bupkis.

I think the most useful class I ever took was high school typing, where I pecked away about lazy dogs and quick foxes on the kind of 1940’s-era machines that Dashiell Hammett could’ve found himself hunched over.  (The class was really called “Computer Science 101: Keyboard Basics”, but it was the mid ’80s and the school only had one Commodore computer.)

What I really needed to know after grad school was how to manage people, build teams, deal with conflict, assess local needs, conduct outreach, understand budgets, raise funds, facilitate meetings strategically plan, evaluate success, and communicate effectively. There are great grad schools out there that teach this stuff — namely MBA, public policy, and non-profit management programs.  But I think these types of skills need to be more intentionally mainstreamed into pretty much all professional schools.

Iggie became a master craftsman because he watched people at work, apprenticed under others, and learned by doing.  We need more of this ethos in graduate programs. This is the classic theory-practice gap, and it’s not enough to simply encourage students to take internships where they can learn skills by a combination of administrative gruntwork and observing real workers in their natural habitats.  Grad schools need more skill-based, practical, hands-on, learn-by-doing courses.

I’m not an academic, or much of an intellectual, but somehow I ended up as an adjunct professor at New York University’s Center for Global Affairs.  Refreshingly, the school prides itself on being somewhat more practically-minded than its cousins in the international relations academic demimonde.  Profs there incorporate things like proposal writing, monitoring and evaluation, public speaking and other nuts and bolts skills that we use in the non-profit world. They let me teach my reality show-esque How to Build Your Own NGO course, and a mediation skills class, along with the formidable Alan Gross.  It’s big fun for me, and hopefully useful, or at least tolerable, for my students.

Wait till they get a load of my Welding 101 syllabus proposal.

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