When they left me outside my freshman dorm in the fall of 2009, my parents told me I could do anything. It was a wonderful compliment, a sign of confidence that made me feel just a little less guilty for the substantial investment they were making for me in a private liberal arts education.
But a month or so later, when I sat down with my adviser, I realized doing “anything” wasn’t an option. I had to decide on something: a major. I needed to choose a path to follow for the rest of my time at Washington and Lee.
A lot of my friends already knew what their something was, and they directed four years of classes and internships toward being investment bankers in New York City or campaign managers in Alabama. Others knew they were headed to Harvard Law or a Ph.D. program at Columbia.
I wasn’t so sure. I knew I wanted to write and to speak another language. But even though I thought law school might be a next step, I never had a specific career in mind.
My decision to major in journalism and Spanish made me nervous at the start of my senior year. After a wild summer covering cannibals and synthetic drugs for a Spanish-language newspaper in Miami, I wasn’t sure about becoming a reporter. I wasn’t even sure how much longer paying news jobs would be around, with so many newspapers giving away content for free. My coursework couldn’t drown out the nagging thought that my choices weren’t as practical as planning a career in business or computer science.
It took me a while to realize I’d been thinking about the liberal arts education — and a college education in general — all wrong.
College is now too often described as (expensive) four-year job training and an automatic “in” to a wonderful first job. But people who think of it that way don’t understand the true value of a liberal arts education. It’s not about learning to do something; it’s about learning to do everything and to adapt to an environment in which you know how to do nothing. It’s about making use of intelligence, learning how to be a productive citizen in ways that go beyond paychecks and consumer spending.
At a small school like Washington and Lee, it’s also about working with professors and learning from them outside the classroom. It’s about getting an esteemed group of mentors from which to choose and feeding off their passion.
Sure, I’ve learned a lot of things with little application outside of journalism. (Who else would use Avid NewsCutter software?) And I know more about Spain’s colonization of the New World than is likely to be useful. But I’ve gotten so much more out of the past four years than students stuck inside one academic building could ever get.
I’ve gone spelunking with a geology professor and can tell the difference between gabbro and granite. I can explain originalist interpretations of the Constitution and debate the ethical constraints of memoir. I’ve performed with our choir inside the Korean Demilitarized Zone and during a mass at St. Peter’s Basilica. I’ve shaken hands with Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and dined with civil rights activist Julian Bond. I’ve lived for a semester in Seville, Spain, with a widow who knew just one word of English (artichoke). I’ve written essays and columns for newspapers and magazines and found that getting paid hardly anything (even nothing) did not render the opportunity a waste of time. I’ve anchored a local news broadcast and helped a professor design a book jacket.
I admit I didn’t retain much calculus, but I can think critically and I can write. I’m fluent in Spanish now too.
The point is that the fear that has overwhelmed me for the past several months is irrational. Yes, it would be nice to have an exciting job offer tailored to what I’ve studied. It would be less stressful to know exactly what it is I’m supposed to do.
But it could also be problematic. The world of work is evolving faster than anyone could have predicted during freshman orientation. The job descriptions being written today wouldn’t have made much sense four years ago. And what workers need to know once they have their jobs is constantly in flux.
So what’s the point of training for a specific job, or sending children to school to study just one thing? Why expect at the onset that the end goal is a certain starting salary? It might be better to get to the end of college and, like many of my classmates, have the same problem you had at the start: You can do anything.