I was recently sitting in a faculty-driven discussion about helping to prepare students for life after graduation. As is often the case in these kinds of discussions, participants began thinking around the role of higher education in career development. It was noted that recent surveys suggest that both parents and students place a high priority on job placement when considering what school they enroll in. For instance, a 2013 article by Debra Humphreys cited statistics from the most recent American Freshman survey conducted by the Cooperative Institutional Research Program at UCLA showing that “85.9 percent of entering students said that “to be able to get a better job” was the number one reason they were pursuing college degrees” (emphasis in original). Of course, this is not at all surprising considering the current state of higher education, where rising costs are outpacing returns on investment and more and more college graduates are finding themselves unemployed or underemployed and drowning in debt.
The conversation then turned to what exactly the “job preparation” offered by higher education should consist of. If we consider what employers want, we might emphasize findings from research conducted by Hart Research Associates on behalf of The Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U). According to their most recent survey of employers, “nearly all employers surveyed (95%) say they give hiring preference to college graduates with skills that will enable them to contribute to innovation in the workplace” (p. 1).
As I sat listening to faculty discuss the importance of job preparation and carefully considered the implications of the purported value placed on innovation by employers, I was struck by the tension this creates for those of us who adopt a critical criminological lens. As someone who is acutely aware of and concerned about the ways in which criminal justice systems exacerbate social inequities, I struggle with the idea of helping to create “good workers.” On the one hand I recognize the value in attempting to educate future criminal justice professionals in ways that may empower them to enact change from within these oppressive systems. On the other hand I question the capacity for individual workers to overcome the institutional barriers to change endemic of criminal justice systems.
When I ask my students, many of whom come from difficult and disadvantaged backgrounds and live in areas stricken by interpersonal, institutional and structural violence, why they are pursuing a career in criminal justice, the most common reply is to help those in need. I sympathize with and applaud my students’ willingness to do this work. I recognize that for them, employment in a stable public-sector career is a way out and a way up. I even recognize the inherent hypocrisy of my questioning their intentions considering that my employment is supported by the ever-expanding criminal justice complex. But I just can’t help feeling that the outcome is training good workers for a problematic system.
University of Washington – Tacoma