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Coffee, College and Commodity

Photonics.com
Sep 2010
Sep. 21, 2010 —

On a balmy afternoon way back in 1992, a friend and I spotted a new storefront as we were strolling down the main avenue in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. In the window was a sign announcing the opening of a shop called Uncommon Ground (I would eventually come to understand the pun). We pressed our faces to the window and saw, on the shelves behind the counter, rows upon rows of gourmet coffees and teas.

I marveled at the concept of a restaurant that offered endless varieties of caffeinated drinks and almost nothing else. “A coffee shop?” I said, laughing at the folly of the idea, smug in my obviously superior business acumen, though I had no actual business training or experience. “That will never last.”

I’m sitting in Uncommon Ground as I write this, some 18 years later. And I can think of two or three other coffee shops within a stone’s throw of here. So, OK, I was wrong. How could I have known in 1992 that Americans would be more than happy to fork over three or four dollars for a cup of coffee? How could I have known that I would be?

In any event, it’s always good to visit Saratoga – even aside from the myriad opportunities to drink more coffee. I went to school here, just up the road from where I’m sitting now; I developed enduring friendships here; much of what I know, I learned here. To me, coming to Saratoga is a bit like coming home. 

                                                                 * * *

Last week I talked about criticisms leveled at for-profit colleges and universities: Many educators consider these schools to be somewhat mercenary, concerned more about their bottom line than about the welfare of their students. For-profit providers aren’t the only ones who view education as a commodity, though – as something that can be exchanged or exploited within a market. More and more, students look upon the schooling they receive – really, the diploma handed to them at the finish – primarily as a means to a job. Especially in today’s economic climate, many measure the value of the education almost solely in terms of the earning potential it provides.

Earlier this year, college guidance website WiseChoice conducted a survey asking 1,175 high school seniors across the country their reasons for going to college. The most common response, with 80 percent strong agreement, was to find better job opportunities. Further down the list were “to broaden their mind and learn more” (69 percent strong agreement) and “the social experience of going to college” (51 percent).

So students these days aren’t especially concerned with existentialism or where the next kegger is going to be. Can you blame them? It’s been almost two years since the near-collapse of the US economy, we’re not even close to a full recovery, and job prospects for graduates are still grim. It really should come as no surprise that students are focused on finding work after they leave school.

Still, some educators fear that, in concentrating so heavily on resume building and on developing relatively narrow ‘professional’ skill sets, they are missing out on other important lessons – lessons that, whether they know it or not, can aid them in the workplace.

For further insight, I e-mailed my undergraduate adviser, Skidmore College professor Gordon Thompson (on any given morning you can find Gordon in the back corner of Uncommon Ground, and pose a question or two over a cup of coffee; I happen to be here in the afternoon). I asked his perspective, as an adviser to innumerable students over the years, on the less quantifiable aspects of the college experience that nonetheless contribute to students’ readiness for ‘the real world.’

“My main goal is to prepare students for life, of which ‘employment’ is only one part of the equation,” he replied. To this end, he said, he focuses his attention in the areas of critical thinking and communication. The college experience is replete with means by which to cultivate such skill sets, and these can be found throughout the arts, social sciences, natural sciences and humanities. “Each of these discipline areas emphasizes a different way of analyzing and thinking about the world. Similarly, each has its normative modes of communication, both in and about activities in the disciplines.”

He added that, on a more general level, college provides a safe environment in which to make intellectual mistakes – also immeasurably important to graduates preparing to enter the workforce. “Getting students to do presentations, to work collaboratively, to explore the logic of their ideas, and to learn how to deal with criticism and compliments are invaluable as life skills,” he said.




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