Homecoming & Continuing Education

Quality art and effective entertainment do more than amuse and divert us. At their best, they connect us to meaningful insights about ourselves and the world in which we live. The first season of the Amazon series Homecoming did this.

At the center of Homecoming’s narrative is the troubling question: what if the work we do, regardless of our intentions, and what we believe about it, harms others? What if our job, without our full knowledge, is to take broken people, and fix them just enough to put them back on the job? What if we stumble into a realization that we are helping the larger machinery we are caught up in consume people, squeezing the last bit of value from them, before they are tossed aside and discarded?

In my case, after watching the first season of Homecoming, I was moved to ask: when educators retrain workers for the workplace, using blueprints drawn up by employers, are we really serving students to the extent that we should? Are we helping students grow and become all they can be, to become more whole, or we just giving them new tool belts, and sending them back to staff the machinery of our ever-evolving economy?

Don’t get me wrong: giving displaced workers new tools so they can find work is important. I look at my home town, Cleveland, Ohio, and I wonder what might have been if all of the workers who were set aside as the city bled industrial jobs were retrained to find new, meaningful work in growing segments of the economy?

But that can’t be all we do. Our obligation should be to the students, not the economy. Making sure they have tools to navigate change, to be thoughtful and resilient and strategic, to reinvent themselves, and the world they work in, should be part of our job. Educators should work to engineer fully-functioning people, people who can reach beyond their present limitations, to grow beyond their aspirations and expectations. We shouldn’t be content to merely upgrade workers’ job-relevant skills.

This is where, I think, I should offer the customary warning: spoilers follow.

In Homecoming, Julia Roberts’ character, Heidi Bergman, is employed by a big multi-national corporation to provide counseling to veterans, returning from a Middle Eastern war. At the beginning of the series, her facility, the Homecoming Transitional Support Center, is seemingly engaged in helping traumatized soldiers heal, so they can return home. What we learn, by the end of the series, is that Homecoming is, instead, dedicated to erasing the soldiers’ trauma so they can be redeployed to the theater of combat. It’s a deception that is tied to a fact revealed toward the end of the series: the firm’s clients are not the soldiers they are treating. Homecoming, instead, is operating under contract to the Department of Defense, with the objective of returning rebuilt soldiers to the front.

I was moved to wonder: when we in higher education work for employers, if we entirely turn our institutions and programs over to industry to shape the skills it needs to succeed in the marketplace, rather than devoting our work to the students we enroll, aren’t we doing something similar to what Homecoming does?

We are retooling workers to return to the frontlines of America’s workplaces. But are we giving them the tools to be confidently self-guided, critically aware and analytically agile, to navigate their own journey rather than remain gears in a larger machine?

Modern industry is built on the idea that innovation, technological advances, and market competition will reward some companies, and doom others. The unfolding of history will leave some industries in the dust and elevate others. Textiles gave way to autos and autos gave way to cell phones and cell phones will eventually give way to the next thing. Along the way, workers lose jobs, and are retrained, and find new work with competitors or with new industries. In the 1950s we began to see the value of retraining workers — helping them make the transition from one job to the next. Community colleges were assigned this work, and, from place to place, other types of public initiatives were positioned to help.

But applied or work-related schooling, “technical” education, is, by most measures, ill-suited or at least insufficient for an age defined by technological change. Mastering a technology, that will be replaced by a new technology next year, doesn’t help individuals (or societies) trying to navigate change. When we do this as educators, time and time again, we don’t really help our students grow or develop self-sufficiency.

Our job should be to help our students — regardless of their age or life experience — grow. When we retool students for the next job — teaching them limited technical skills, sufficient to qualify for the next minimum-wage opportunity — without challenging them to develop critical-thinking skills, analytical agility, and the range of tools that will allow them to engage and question managers and chart their own paths, we fail to do this. Employers may want compliant, minimally skilled-workers. We should expect more, from ourselves and from our students.

When we fail to challenge ourselves to expect more from our engagement with students, and from the outcomes we fashion in companionship with our students, we are making the same mistake Heidi Bergman made with her Homecoming clients. We are merely getting our students back on their feet, so they can charge once more into the breach.

Ph.D. Senior continuing education executive and Associate Professor at the University of Virginia School of Continuing and Professional Studies.

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