Would You Like Fries With That?

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?



7 thoughts on “Would You Like Fries With That?

  1. I’m new to your blog and loving every post I read! I have never heard anyone articulate so well the drawbacks to the gloriously-useless liberal arts education. I do think my husband and I will take it one step further than you and strongly discourage our kids from pursuing a liberal arts degree. After they have a job and are supporting themselves, if they want to go back to school as a *hobby* and pursue a liberal arts degree, fine. But as long as the goal of liberal arts is not “job” and instead more like “hobby” / “leisure” we feel its more fitting that it happens on free-time rather than during the time of life geared towards getting job-ready.

    Do I regret my liberal arts education? Honestly… a little bit. I also regret a little bit that my parents got kind of drunk on the word “Catholic” and didn’t think past that to any of the practical details that might matter in a college (like actually being accredited so that grad programs accept you instead of making you get a whole new undergrad degree from a university that’s accredited “for real” first). I also regret my own ignorance – how did I not foresee it all myself?

    So instead of spending their four valuable post-highschool years reading and thinking over coffee, my dream for my kids is to gear their youth towards learning how to set practical goals and achieve them efficiently. How to plan for a future that includes dependents. How to budget prudently. How to fix a car. How to fix a toilet. How to persevere in a job that isn’t “fun” or “fulfilling” or “meaningful” but which pays the bills. How to be grateful for that job and even excel at it.

    Lastly, I want to add something that’s made me sad. It was not just seeing some of my classmates of yore floundering to get a footing in the job market back when we graduated 10+ years ago… it was seeing them justify being UNMOTIVATED to do more… until it was really too late. And now its watching them agonize as they strive to raise 3, 4, or 5 kids on the same job they had back in high school because now there is no time or money for going back to school for a “useful” degree. That opportunity is gone. And I do wonder if they’d give up their liberal arts degrees to have it back…


    • Good point about the accreditation! It’s one thing to encourage young people to study what they love, and it’s another thing to say “come to our college! Sure, this education won’t get you a job, and sure, you won’t have an official degree or transferable credits, but who cares?” That’s really doing kids a disservice. I’m very grateful for the formation I got from the liberal arts, but I can’t help thinking that there’s got to be some way to have the best of both worlds, instead of having to completely sacrifice studying what you love for being marketable, or vice-versa. But maybe my definition’s too narrow. I think you’re on to something when you talk about learning to appreciate and love a non-liberal arts career. We’re Christians, we should be able to find beauty anywhere, right?


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  3. Hi there! New to your blog. My educational background was similar to yours . . . I don’t regret it, but I went to law school and had to deal with the accompanying debt. But I was lucky not to have undergrad debt. So I guess I’m the exception to the rule. And my husband (philosophy major) has a good job in IT that he got through a combination of self-teaching and on-the-job training. . . . Like you, I’d encourage my kids to get more practical degrees. A really strong high school education could include a lot of what you learn in college-level liberal arts. (Kids read the Odyssey in high school. Do they really need to read it again in college?) . . . . I look at my sister, who’s a nurse, and envy her job security and flexibility. . . . I guess I’ll try to give my kids the strongest classical high school education possible, and then encourage them to have an eye toward a career when they pick a college major, even if they do want to study the liberal arts. But then, it’s hard to know what career you want when you’re only 18! I certainly didn’t have a clue. . . . Lots to think about here!


    • Thanks for your comment! I had the same thought–a liberal arts high school education. I was lucky enough to have that, so, I would have still had a taste of that enrichment even if I had went to a trade school for college. I think most people are not going to get that without homeschooling, though. The high schools already have so much else to cover.

      I know what you mean, I certainly didn’t know what career I wanted after high school, either. I think that’s part of the reason why kids should be very careful before they commit to tons of debt, since they’re very likely to change their minds after college. A trade school, or a few years of community college first, would be a much smaller investment; and even if they didn’t find their true calling until afterwards, at least they’d have some employable skills to pay the bills along the way!


  4. Hi Rosie,
    Actually the school you are referring to does have career counseling and resume writing now. Also, they keep the tuition and expenses down so that at least liberal arts grads from THERE carry less debt than anywhere else that I know of. I DO agree with you about planning better to support yourself. Eating is not a recreational activity. But I also think that whether a person lands a job that pays depends largely on that person and his/her circumstances. Thanks for calling attention to a serious real world issue.


    • I’m glad to hear that! I’m not too impressed with what I’ve heard about their new programs so far, but I hope they continue moving in that direction. I think you’re right that a person’s career success depends a lot on their own personal drive and hard work; I hadn’t considered that as much. I think it also has to do with luck and connections–most of the liberal arts people I know who ended up with good careers got their break through personal connections. However, I think kids in this economy especially need all the help they can get, and I don’t think it’s unfair to expect the college to provide them with a fair amount of guidance.


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