Video: Washington Post interviews Clayton Spencer about Purposeful Work innovations

Joining a select group of nine U.S. education leaders for an edition of Washington Post Live on Thursday, President Clayton Spencer explained that Bates’ Purposeful Work initiative meets a major — though not always fulfilled — responsibility of a liberal arts college: helping students find jobs that feel meaningful.

Colleges have long shortchanged students, said Spencer, by claiming to teach “critical thinking, collaboration, creativity — all those things — but then just telling students ‘good luck’” at graduation.

“Bates is a classic liberal arts college, but we also recognize and embrace the fact that college has always been about preparing students for life and work,” Spencer said.

View President Spencer explaining how Purposeful Work helps Bates students align their interests with work that brings them meaning in life:

“We’ve always said that the liberal arts is the most powerful and adaptable kind of education there is,” she said.

“But we need to make sure our students are aware” of those powers and can use them “as they move through the world. That’s what it’s going to take in a global economy with high-velocity change.”

Washington Post Live is the paper’s live-journalism initiative that convenes U.S. leaders and emerging voices on various topics. Thursday’s education-focused program was part of the “Transformers” series, with prior editions looking at topics like national defense, artificial intelligence, space exploration, and medicine.

The format features participants interviewed in small groups by different Post reporters and columnists. Spencer’s segment, dubbed “Education 360°,” included former U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services and now U.S. Rep. Donna Shalala, D-Fla., and Dr. Wayne A.I. Frederick, president of Howard University.

Meaningful and purposeful work “aligns your values and your interests with how you act in the world.”

In explaining Purposeful Work, Spencer began with two simple statements. First, “everyone in life is looking for meaning.” Second, people want the ability to “act in the world in a way that brings them meaning.”

We act in the world through our work, and work is fundamental to how we find meaning. And that’s what purposeful work is, she said. It’s not a kind of work — “You might want to be a forest ranger or a ballet dancer, or work for JPMorgan” — but work that delivers personal meaning.

And meaningful and purposeful work “aligns your values and your interests with how you act in the world,” she said.

At Bates, Purposeful Work programming — with elements infused into the overall curriculum; a range of specific, practitioner-taught courses during Short Term; and a broad-scale summer internship program — “helps students understand that it’s that alignment they’re after.”

Finding alignment starts with discovering what interests us. In college, it means “taking courses that you’re actually interested in,” rather than courses that don’t feel interesting but feel like a proxy for getting a job.

Purposeful Work counters the notion that students arrive at college knowing what they’re passionate about and then, with the help of college, learn to “impose that on the world, or let it out. If you’re Yo-Yo Ma or Leonardo da Vinci, that probably works. But for most people, passion is a byproduct of doing different things and achieving mastery.”

View the full Washington Post Live segment featuring Spencer, Shalala, and Frederick:

In addition to Spencer, Shalala, and Frederick, the program featured Russlynn Ali, CEO and co-founder, XQ Institute; Ryan Craig, founder of University Ventures; Robert McMahon, president of Kettering University; Sanjay Rai, senior vice president for academic affairs, Montgomery College; Cynthia Miller-Idriss, professor of education and sociology, American University; and Thomas Nichols, professor of national security affairs, Naval War College.

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