When I went to a small, Catholic liberal arts high school, my Euclid teacher, Mr. L., used to tell us that proponents of the liberal arts were often scoffed at for preparing students to live in a cave, not to encounter the real world. Then he would gleefully proclaim that his main goal in teaching was to prepare us for that cave. None of those mercenary, servile arts for us! We weren’t being prepared to do anything so ignoble as make a living. We were studying beauty, truth and goodness for their own sake.
My college’s former president, on the other hand, Dr. S., was rather sadistically fond of this joke: “What question are liberal arts students most likely to ask after graduation?” “Do you want fries with that?” Ha ha! As a political science major working part time at a supermarket, that one isn’t so funny anymore.
Looking back, I’m not sorry that I pursued liberal arts all the way through college. In addition to the enrichment it brought to my faith and the wonderful people it brought into my life, college taught me how to write well, how to speak clearly and persuasively, and how to research and make public presentations. It didn’t teach me how to get a job, and I wasn’t expecting it to. But looking back, I really wish it had.
Instead of glorifying in its “uselessness,” my alma mater’s current tactic is to promise prospective students that employers will be lining up to hire them after graduation, not because of their job skills, but because their classically-trained minds will be an asset in any industry. They feature stories of alumni who have gone on to earn advanced degrees and succeed in various professions, all beginning with a degree in literature or philosophy. They do not make it clear that these people are the exception, not the rule. They do not feature stories like my husband, who needed to support a family immediately after graduating, and found out that he needed to go through a long, exhausting, and expensive graduate program to do so; or my friend J., who wanted to pursue a medical degree, but had to first add many basic science courses to his already-heavy college course load, to make up for the lack of science in our liberal arts curriculum; or my friend M., who was unmarried and pursued his love of theology through grad school, but found himself afterwards with not much more of a career plan, but a lot more debt. Or you could end up like many of my friends, who found a satisfying job in writing or teaching, but still had to deal with the fact that it didn’t really pay enough to easily support a family or pay back student loans.
Now look, if my kids feel a calling to the liberal arts, I’m not going to stop them. I think it’s a wonderful thing. But I’m going to encourage them to take a year off first and get their LNA, or their HVAC certification, or learn a foreign language. If they end up at a liberal arts college, I want to make sure it will give them some real career advice, instead of assuming that they’re just going to be perpetual students. I don’t ever want to see them unable to buy a house or have another child, or have to work 3 jobs, because of crippling student loan debt. I also want them to know that there’s nothing wrong with a job that’s not intellectual! There’s nothing wrong with a job that’s boring, or manual, or technical, or unimaginative. As Christians, we’re supposed to strive to sanctify any work we do, whether it’s “meaningful” employment or not.
In this economy especially, schools are doing kids a grave disservice by either encouraging them to dream about living in romantic poverty and writing poetry, or lying to them about the job prospects of someone who spent the last four years writing essays on philosophy but who never learned to write a resume. I’m grateful for the lovely things that the liberal arts filled my mind with, but I think it’s possible to have it both ways. Here’s hoping that my alma mater will realize this by the time my kids are old enough.
I’d love your feedback on this! If you went to a liberal arts school, did it prepare you for a career? Do you regret doing liberal arts? Do you regret going to college at all? What are you plans for your kids?