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The Carletonian

The Carletonian

‘What are you going to do with a degree in that?’

<rleton offers 37 majors. When I glance at the list, I can identify seven that might appear “practical” to somebody who hasn’t been drinking the liberal arts kool-aid.

The humanities, obviously, are out. From there it’s just a step to area studies and the social sciences, which have the same problem. Foreign languages have the panache of utility, but the UN already has translators. The applied arts aren’t feasible anymore either – the art world is shrinking, and Carleton doesn’t even offer a BFA. Then you get into the weirder sciences, and those are out too: political science is unrealistic unless you want to work for an NGO for ten years, and linguistics and geology are what you might charitably call “quixotic.” When the dust settles we’re left with biology, chemistry, psychology, mathematics, computer science, physics, and economics – and most students in those fields will probably end up in the academy anyway, which is almost as carnivorous and exhausting for them as it is for humanities students.        

Understandably, this issue rarely gets brought up at Carleton. Carleton is, after all, a liberal arts school, which means it’s structurally opposed to the idea of education as “career training.” The thrust of our focus here is not on the future, it’s on what we are studying now. One of the seductions of the liberal arts model, I think, is that for four years it lets us ignore the need to decide a trajectory for our lives. Instead, we’re allowed to bask in cultural enrichment and other luxuries.

In fact, my perception of the climate is that career-oriented or vocational education is considered a little gauche.  We turn up our noses slightly at nursing certificates and engineering degrees, and of course the Great Satan of the BBA, because they’re rooted in a ruthlessly capitalist idea of education – education as training for the job market, education not so much as a broadening of the mind but a narrowing, transforming potentially versatile human beings into blunt instruments for one industry or another. We know better than that, we sniff. We’re not vocational zombies.
The idea that we’re the ones who get to carry forward the banner of Thought and Reason while the misguided plebeians, with their vocational education, toil beneath us, is pretty disgusting, but I think the larger issue is that in a purely capitalist sense, the liberal arts aren’t worth it, and we know it.

Just look at the Occupy Wall Street protests. Many of the people involved in those protests are frustrated precisely because they graduated from college, many of them from schools like Carleton, having been told that their liberal arts degree was a good investment, that they’d be able to switch professions like a good twenty-first century employee, that they’d be good communicators and so on. I think a lot of us understand that there’s a good chance we’ll end up like that – overeducated, burdened with too much debt and permanently underemployed.         

And if we don’t, then we’ll become part of a workforce that increasingly values knowledge and understanding as nothing more than means to the end of profit and part of a culture that views the attempt to live a meaningful life as arrogant at best and subversive at worst, a culture that promotes spiritual isolation and the repression of curiosity as aspects of our lives to be valued and cultivated because they allow us to be more profitable.

The culture of casual despair that this has created is astonishing. Many of my friends have already decided to leave the country and move on to greener pastures after graduating. Most of them sprinkle their conversation with vague, fatalistic jokes about how impossible it’s going to be to get a job with their studio art majors. We live every day in the knowledge that what we’re doing is, from any economic sense, the height of stupidity.

But we also know that it’s important. And this is the most important thing: I think in a lot of ways Carleton students really are Doing It For The Love, a way of life that went extinct for most people back in the 70s. We know that it isn’t cost-effective or rational to be studying what we’re studying, but it is important in a larger sense. Somebody has to know about Kierkegaard, after all, and somebody has to know about the mechanics of pheromonal sex discrimination.
I’d like to propose, then, that we give up our attempts to make this education something it’s not. It’s not Harvard – we’re not going to walk into a six-figure salary because we’ve been networking for four years. And it’s not Caltech, either – we’re not learning to perform services that the civilized world will always require. The benefits that the liberal arts have are ineffable, and often they probably won’t even feel like benefits.

But a society made up of executives and engineers would be pretty boring without a class of unemployed baristas who still write novels and look at ants under microscopes. Disconnection from culture is as bad as economic stagnation. So forget about everything else, and keep doing it for the love, Carleton.

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