One college finally designed a liberal arts education fit for the future of work

Making it happen.
Making it happen.
Image: Reuters/Mike Segar
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“I consider work sacred,” Clayton Spencer, president of Bates College, said over coffee in London a few weeks ago. She wasn’t talking about her own job, though she clearly loves what she does. She was explaining her conviction that helping students find meaningful work should be an integral part of a liberal-arts education. ”If you get love and work right,” she said, paraphrasing Sigmund Freud, “you’ve sort of figured it all out.”

Spencer has been head of Bates, a small college in Lewiston, Maine, founded by abolitionists, since 2012. Since she arrived, she’s made it a priority to embed the idea of “purposeful work”—broadly defined as work that both has personal meaning and societal relevance—into as many aspects of college life as possible. While she is romantic about the liberal arts mandate, she understands the importance of finding practical applications for what students learn in school. “Colleges have always been about preparing students for life and jobs,” she said. But too often, career preparation at liberal-arts schools is limited “to an office that asks you what color your parachute is.”

Not so at Bates. Students there can take a psychology class about infancy and listen to guest lecturers, including doulas, nurse practitioners, stay-at-home dads, and brand-new moms, explain why the information in the class is relevant to what they do everyday. During a five-week “short term” in May, Bates offers practitioner-taught courses: One digital marketing course was taught by a digital marketing consultant, while a dancer educated students on the business concerns involved in pursuing a career in the arts. Students can also shadow workers in various fields for a day (many of them Bates alumni) and funding from the school is available for internships in fields that don’t pay, such as non-profits and the arts. Importantly, purposeful work seeks to give students who don’t have networks the skills and the experience to build them.

The pursuit of meaning

Bates is hardly the only place helping its students grapple with the uncertain future. When Yale University announced a new class , “Psychology and the Good Life,” in January, a quarter of the undergraduate population—more than 1,180 students—signed up, making it the most popular course ever at the university. (The course is now available online.) One in six undergraduates at Stanford University take a course that teaches students to apply design thinking to the “wicked problem” of creating fulfilling lives and careers.

“I think students are looking for meaning,” Peter Salovey, president of Yale, told Quartz at the World Economic Forum in Davos in January.

But Spencer comes at the happiness question from a slightly different angle. Instead of teaching kids how to be happy, teach them how to figure out the work they want to do—a key factor in creating happiness. “The source of personal happiness and fulfillment has to be around meaning, and not the psychology of happiness,” she said. “You find meaning by thinking and acting in the world in a way that aligns with your talents and interests and brings you joy, and makes a social contribution of some kind.”

Spencer says the idea that everyone needs to find or know their passion is misguided. “You don’t figure out your passion until you are out there doing the work,” she said. Ditto the habit of applying narratives to adults’ career trajectories. In retrospect, a successful person’s path appears to have logic and linearity, but rarely does it seem that way while the paths are being figured out. “Careers only look like a straight line in retrospect for the simple reason that, one way or another, we have arrived where we are,” Spencer said. In her speeches, she frequently quotes ee cummings (It takes courage to grow up and turn out to be who you really are”) and Joseph Campbell, the scholar of comparative religion and myth (“If the path before you is clear, you’re probably on someone else’s.”). 

Part of Spencer’s mission stems from practical concerns about the economic landscape that young graduates will encounter. Automation and globalization are radically altering employment. Technology is reshaping information and learning, with rich historical archives now available online and Stanford, MIT and Harvard offering high-demand courses on the internet. And with a tuition of $68,870 a year, Bates parents are bound to expect not just a diploma, but employment.

But Spencer also has firsthand experience with the importance of purposeful work. She pursued ambition, not purpose, when she became an assistant United States attorney in Boston, prosecuting drug rings, arson, and embezzlement. But it didn’t quite fit: she didn’t see the world in black and white, as a prosecutor must, and she wanted to fix problems with a team by looking forward, not try cases looking back. “Being a trial lawyer — and particularly a criminal prosecutor — was the wrong fit for me at a very fundamental level,” she said.

She then spent 15 years at Harvard working with four different presidents, thinking a lot about what, exactly, a liberal arts education is, and should be. She enjoyed staying in the background, until Bates called. If Harvard was an ocean liner, Bates is a Laser sailboat, small and nimble, with a rich history of bucking trends. And now she’s in charge.

What is purposeful work?

Shortly after taking over as Bates president, Spencer gathered a group of faculty, staff, and students in 2013 to develop the framework for what it would look like to make purposeful work a meaningful part of a Bates education (here’s the final report).

Programs include the practitioner-taught courses during the short term in May. Then there are courses “infused” with purposeful work, such as “Race, Ethnicity, and Feminist Thought,” “Molecular Biology,” and “Modern Short Stories.” Infusion classes include discussions, reading, and writing assignments about how the course relates to relevant work.

Bates has also built an internship network dedicated to purposeful work, a key resource for students who lack parents or other personal contacts who can hook them up with jobs. Bates has raised $1 million for the purposeful work program, which helps fund internships for students who can’t afford to work for free, or next to nothing. Students in a purposeful internship cohort connect with each other online every week to talk about what they’re struggling with—say, what it’s like to spend the bulk of their time at copy machines.

Psychology professor Rebecca Fraser-Thill, who was part of the original purposeful work design team, got funding from the program to design a course called “Life Architecture: Designing Your Future”. Students learn basic adult skills like how to pay taxes and sign a lease, all while contemplating the meaning of life. That involves reading Man’s Search for Meaning, by Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, and writing their own obituaries. (Sounds macabre, but it really can be an effective way to focus the mind on what one wants to accomplish.) The course aims to arm young adults with “know-how, habits, and—crucially—self-knowledge that will help them make the best marriage of profession and personal fulfillment,” Fraser-Thill said.

The course can have a big impact on students. Callie Reynolds, a senior at Bates and current student in the “Life Architecture” class, said that recently, Fraser-Thill showed students a chart from Carleton College in Minnesota, which showed the relationships between students’ majors and their later professions. It was all but linear: biology students became bankers, and business students became doctors. She said there was a huge sigh of relief in the class, as many realized they did not have to have their entire future figured out.

“I always thought you had to have a passion and great work would follow. I was awaiting that a-ha moment,” Reynolds said. But her experience at Bates showed her that “you have to try things out and create your passion—gain some career capital—and it might become your passion.”

After her second year, she got funding to do an internship with inner-city teens. It was tough and rewarding, she said, and made her realize grassroots community organizing probably wasn’t a path she wanted to pursue. Later, she shadowed a district attorney, which she found thrilling. Fraser-Thrill’s class offered her the space to realize she was not alone in feeling a bit overwhelmed by it all.  ”I found it comforting that it will be a trial and error process.”

How “purposeful work” helps Bates students

When Bates launched the purposeful work project, the group committed to collecting data to measure its effectiveness and improve the program as it went on. They survey students and instructors, gather feedback after events and from participants in the purposeful work internships, and hold focus groups on campus both with students who are part of the initiative, and those who are not. They survey employers involved with the programtoo. The data Bates has released paints a positive picture, showing that a growing number of students say the program has helped them to identify potential future jobs, network, plan their careers, and more effectively present their skills and experiences.

Students overwhelmingly report they would recommend a purposeful work infused class (94%), and agree that practitioner-taught courses are a good addition to the syllabus (96%). Ninety-seven percent of employers agreed the purposeful work interns “added value,” and 91% said the Bates student involved in an internship would be a competitive candidate for a full-time job.

Spencer is pleased with the results so far, but notes that her main goal going forward is equity of opportunity. “I want to make sure our first gen[eration] students of color—groups for whom this kind of college is less part of the fabric in which they grew up—are optimizing their degrees,” she said. Fulfillment should not be dictated by wealth, class, or race. Everyone needs a chance to get into the mess of figuring out a life’s work.

“’Work’ is not something that is ‘out there’ in the ‘real world’ waiting for you, while you’re ‘in here’ for the next four years ‘doing college,'” Spencer said in a speech to Bishop’s University in 2015. “Work is fundamental to who you are and who you will become. And I hope you realize by now that you have been working all of your life.” Or, to quote Annie Dillard, ”How we spend our days is how we spend our lives.”

In her inaugural speech, Spencer cited the theologian Peter Gomes, who said that liberal arts colleges put “the making of a better person ahead of the making of a brighter person, or a better mousetrap.” The time in which young people encounter mousetraps will come. It is Bates’ job to make sure students know how to escape it.