David Brooks, the New York Times columnist, tries to answer this question:
Are universities [he means undergraduate education] mostly sorting devices to separate smart and hard-working high school students from their less-able fellows so that employers can more easily identify them? Are universities factories for the dissemination of job skills? Are universities mostly boot camps for adulthood, where young people learn how to drink moderately, fornicate meaningfully and hand things in on time? My own stab at an answer would be that universities are places where young people acquire two sorts of knowledge, what the philosopher Michael Oakeshott called technical knowledge and practical knowledge.
My answer: Almost all college students want to figure out what job to choose. The answer will depend on what they do well, what they enjoy, and will have a big effect on the rest of their life. The better the answer, the more successful and happy they will be. For them, that is above all what college is for.
This doesn’t even occur to Brooks as a possibility. I suppose professors like this state of affairs (a smart person — Brooks — can’t even think of this). If no one mentions it, they are that much further from having to consider it. Trying to help students reach this goal means giving up power. The more a college helps students learn what they enjoy and what they are good at, the less professors can do exactly what they want.
There is nothing terrible about college classes. I don’t say that this or that humanities course is “useless”. The trouble is lack of balance: too many normal classes, too few “classes” that explicitly help students to learn about the world of work and how they might fit into it. Only a few colleges — often low-prestige “trade schools” — do much to help students learn about possible jobs, what they enjoy, and what they are good at.
Judging by how Berkeley courses are taught — they do little to help students decide what job to do, unless they are seriously considering being a professor — most professors have little or no interest in helping students this way. I suspect, however, they don’t know what they might gain from doing so. At Berkeley I taught a class called Psychology and the Real World whose goal was exactly that: help students find their way (a particular problem for psychology majors, few of whom go to graduate school in psychology). They could do almost anything, so long as it was off-campus. It was little work for me and the students learned a lot. I enjoyed seeing them begin to find their way. This is what I think isn’t obvious to professors: the more you help students learn what they want to learn, the easier and more satisfying it is for you.