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Blinded by the liberal arts mind-set

This summer, I lived in Northfield, working on campus and conducting research for Comps. In most ways, it was an ordinary summer: unremarkable, yet relaxing and surprisingly fun. As a part of my comps research, I helped a local farmer investigate the efficacy of an agricultural technology that has the potential to prevent agricultural nitrate from entering the local watershed. In real terms, this meant that I spent the summer standing on the edge of a cornfield, collecting water and soil samples while swatting mosquitos.

Throughout the summer, the farmer I worked for introduced me to many people in the agriculture and environment worlds. Small talk with these professionals consisted of being asked my name and what sort of geology or agricultural research I planned to do after graduation. The latter question always caught me off guard. I instinctively wondered: Why were these people asking me if my summer research was going to be my future career? After all, what did my academic life have to do with my future?

By the middle of the summer and about the fifth time I had been asked about my future career in agriculture, I realized that these professionals were asking me a logical and obvious question. They saw that I was conducting a research project based on my academic interests and that the project had the potential for long-term study, so they wanted to know if I planned to continue this work. My surprised reaction to their question resulted from my divergent understanding of my Comps research. I saw no logical connection between my Comps—what I took to be a required class—and my future career. My inability to see the connection between my academic exploration and a professional future stemmed from Carleton’s liberal arts ethos. The unifying theme of my last three years of study is that regardless of what I
have studied here, I have learned the skills I need to do anything in the future. In other words, it does not matter what I study because everything I learn applies to what I decide to do after I graduate. I had taken this idea a little further, thinking that my Comps research was just another intellectual exercise, unanchored from my future career. In fact, I believed that my future career was more likely to be unrelated to my current academic pursuits than it would be related to them. And thus, I realized that the liberal arts ethos planted the idea that my education was not connected to my future and obscured the potential—and even obvious—connection between what I do here and what I will do after graduation. This is not to say that I do not appreciate the liberal arts philosophy of using any academicstudy to learn translatable skills. I have enjoyed the opportunity to take a myriad of classes and to learn things like communication and problem-solving. Exposure to many discipline and higher-order thinking skills are essential to every job. I definitely need to learn them in order to do well at life. However, in emphasizing diversity of academic exploration and higher-order thinking skills, Carleton helped me lose track of the more concrete connections between my academic exploration and my professional future. As it stands now, I am armed with higher-order thinking skills, but I have no concept of what jobs I can pursue nor how to pursue them. Carleton gave me knowledge, but I do not know how to use what I have learned, and so what use is that knowledge anyway?

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