I’m now about halfway through my junior year, a fact I’m often reminded of when I return home for the holidays. Asking what I plan on doing with my life is no longer a generic question to fill in an awkward pause; it’s now a practical question demanding a somewhat reasonable answer. And what exactly have I learned in my classes that will help me in my future, unknown career?

It’s a tough question to answer, because I really don’t exactly know how to express what I’ve learned in my classes. I came to the University of Michigan — like many other students — to get a liberal arts education, one that, by definition, teaches me “how to think” — how to think “critically” that is.

The word “critically” seems to be a buzzword for the value of attending a university. But a Tedx video I watched echoes this idea. Sir Kenneth Robinson, a world leader in developing education, says, “I think you’d have to conclude the whole purpose of public education throughout the world is to produce university professors.” He argues that as children we’re extremely creative in our thinking and that dwindles throughout our lives. Creative thinking isn’t rewarded. By the time we finally receive a university education, we’ve become so afraid of being wrong that we’re more comfortable analyzing than we are solving.

Looking back at the classes I’ve taken here at the University, the one common theme is that there’s analysis — and a lot of it. It becomes so easy, and so ingrained in our education, to be, well, “critical” of anything and everything. Yet, a Pew survey from May 2012 found that in traditional colleges across the country, 36 percent of students showed little to no increase in critical-thinking skills. It’s an astonishing low percentage considering that the purpose of most universities is to teach this type of thought.

However, the same Pew study also finds that 86 percent of the college graduates surveyed believe their schooling has been a good investment, despite ever-increasing costs. So there still may be benefits to be gained from obtaining a college degree, but they may not come in the form many expect.

According to Philip Hanlon, the University provost and executive vice president for academic affairs, “service learning courses, entrepreneurial activities and undergraduate research encourage students to think creatively and engage themselves in a situation where they don’t know the outcome.” He argues that extracurriculars are equally, if not more, important than traditional classes.

While the University encourages students to get involved with extracurriculars when they enroll, the importance of such activities is not emphasized enough. Creative thinking — the thinking that requires putting oneself in a situation with unpredictable outcomes — is usually applied in activities outside of the classroom.

My involvement with extracurriculars — which ranges from being a research assistant for a professor to writing outside of the classroom — is what taught me most of the skills that I’ll apply to my future career(s); it’s what got me my internship this past summer. I was fortunate enough to realize that I should take the initiative and join things outside of the classroom. However, some students don’t take advantage of this simply because they don’t know that extracurriculars are now something that’s almost a requirement.

Today, the average American switches their career five to seven times. Creative-thinking skills are crucial to making successful transitions and adapting to various situations. Universities are behind in the development of programs that promote this type of thinking. While critical-thinking skills are a significant part of higher education, they shouldn’t be the sole focus of a liberal arts education.

It’s scary to think that we may be squashing a child’s creative ability through our current education system. I’m lucky that I was able to somehow turn my first-grade diary entries into newspaper writing and that my childhood curiosity transformed into a research project. Our University — and universities across the country — must take a step back and examine the skills they’re teaching in the classroom and decide whether or not these skills are totally applicable to the job market today. Because if they do this, they have the potential to give students the unique opportunity to experience risk and the unknown before they ever leave the comfort of the job title “student.” Then, the question of what students learned in the college classroom may not be so difficult to answer.

Adrienne Roberts can be reached at adrirobe@umich.edu. Follow her on Twitter at @AdrRoberts.

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