For the past three and a half years, there’s one surefire conversation that’s bound to happen the same way: at a family gathering, be it a party or holiday, surrounded by people I see once a year, one time too many, after the obligatory “it’s so nice to see you” nonsense, the question forms on their lips. “So, how’s school going?” and, because they’re all apparently amnesic, “and what are you studying again?” English. The same thing I’ve been studying for three years at college, the thing I’ve liked most for the 21 years they’ve known me. And then, in their misguided attempts to feign interest and understanding, the coup de grâce: “What do you want to do with that? Be a teacher?”
One of the largest obstacles for people who pursue a liberal arts degree, and for those who pretend to care and be supportive, is the lack of a clear cut career path or direct application to one particular field. For instance, those who study economics feasibly could continue through their education and jump straight into a job in, you guessed it: economics. They could be economists! Chemistry? Chemists! Engineering makes engineers! By no means do these people have to fall in line with that train of thought, but for the sake of explaining to family members, they can fall back on that and be met with nods. Try to explain that you want to pursue a PhD in English because, well, it makes you happy, you’d like to be a professor and scholar, and you’ll have grandma reaching for another champagne bottle.
Maybe it’s because we’re simple creatures, we want order or we want to be able to see and understand the clear cut relationships between thing A and thing B. In order to assuage our own desire and need to comprehend, we attempt to make the cleanest, easiest relationship possible. Marketing majors want to work in marketing. Easy enough. History majors do what? Become historians? Does that even exist anymore? If you want to make people’s eyes roll up into the back of their heads, try suggesting that history majors can make up the majority of, say, a small, liberal arts college in Central Pennsylvania’s head members of administration. That doesn’t connect. The study of history does not equal becoming the president of a college.
But why is that? Why can’t we see that as a connection or possibility, or at least be open to the fact that it could be? Using my personal experiences and observations alone, I suggest it’s due to the pressures presented to children earlier and earlier every year by parents, family and teachers. “What do you want to be?” they ask the first-years in college. You need to start thinking now. And it’s at that point that those A-B relationships are ingrained in our heads: okay, you like video games, but what are you going to do with that? You can’t be a video gamer. Fool. Get an interest with a bit more security, something in business, because the state of the economy and businesses in America isn’t terrible at all, and that’s something we can actually wrap our minds around! For the love of God, just don’t follow your dreams.
Now, I’ve gotten lucky to be blessed with parents who understand and support what I want to do. And even better, at points when they don’t understand, they still support me, because they trust in my ability to take what it is I’m studying and connect it to an endpoint or goal. Believe it or not, in having to put up with the constant questioning and jeering that I, as a liberal arts major, experience depressingly often, my resolve to make those connections is strengthened. Even better is that my ability to make those connections gets better and better. Therein lies the strength and merit of a liberal arts degree: you’re not handed, more often than not, a cookie-cutter answer to questions about your future and desires. You’ve got to work to make it happen; you’ve got to make the connection yourself. You’ve got to pick your own goal and dream, and run through hell or high water to get to it.
Luckily, I go to a college where that resolve is reaffirmed every day when I pass the Masters Center — beautiful, Hoover — beautiful, and then head into Nicarry. Through aesthetics alone, what is deemed important is laid out for all on campus to see. Pre-professional bias is firmly entrenched, the connection between those buildings, their departments and their merit and feasibility, juxtaposed next to whatever you want to describe Nicarry as and the dungeon where we lock our music majors up in a basement. I guess the good news, for me at least, is that the people who choose to venture into Nicarry or Zug have something worthwhile waiting for them.