A few months ago I offered some advice to my daughter in this space, about keeping her options open and getting a good summer job. I stand by that advice, and now, in the pre-registration advising season, I find I have a little more. I've been thinking about jobs, careers, and higher education lately, in part because I've been reading Louis Menand's The Marketplace of Ideas, in part because I keep reading articles like this one in the New York Times from several months ago, and in part because during the advising season it seems like the topic du jour with my students as well.
As Menand demonstrates, the link between higher education and career training has always been fraught. It wasn't until the beginning of the twentieth century that a bachelor's degree was a standard admissions requirement for professional school; in the 19th century, one might attend either college or law school, either college or medical school. Thus a bachelor's degree had little if anything to do with entering into the professions. And the history of liberal arts education suggests that many professors would like to keep it that way—a big part of the debates over general education curricula (here and elsewhere) have to do with the question of "relevance" or "professionalization"—with many defenders of traditional general education programs resisting the call to make their programs more relevant. Ironically, however, as Menand also makes clear, the first general education curricula were developed precisely to combat the problem of "irrelevance"—to provide college graduates with some cohesive and coherent shared knowledge that could not be contained within disciplinary boundaries but which would, the idea was, help fit them for post-college life. Traditional liberal arts majors, as opposed to general education curricula, have never been focused on relevance except in the narrow sense of relevance to their own disciplines.
For many years I had a clipping up on my door from the University of Richmond's alumni magazine. It was from an interview with a major donor who had made his fortune in a field well outside academe, and in it he was asked what his major was. I no longer have the clipping, but to the best of my recollection he said something like, "I did everything wrong; I majored in English." He went on to explain that his undergraduate major was not career training in any conventional sense, though he was, of course, prepared to learn in whatever field he chose. But the damage, for me, was done: majoring in English is somehow doing things wrong.
Well, of course it is, if you are looking narrowly at professional training. As Menand also makes clear in his book, the traditional liberal arts majors are in some ways best suited for developing liberal arts professors, but there are very few such jobs in the world and lots of liberal arts graduates. Yet my students, year after year, go off to interesting post-college lives. Some do, it's true, end up in graduate and professional schools. I have three former students in or headed towards divinity school right now, somewhat to my surprise, and one pursuing a Ph.D. in English. One is a philosophy professor. Others have gone into more specialized M.A. programs in education, speech, and the like. The vast majority, however, are working in what may or may not be their chosen career fields. If, as we're now told, the average person is likely to change careers—not just jobs—three to five times in their working lives, then we probably shouldn't be narrowly focused on career training. Rather, we should be doing what we say we do: training minds, teaching students to think and to learn, to read and write well, to communicate effectively.
We do all these things—learn, think, read, write, communicate—best when we have something we're passionate about. So that's the advice I find myself giving more and more these days—find something you love. Anything. It need not be your major (though if you're lucky it will be); it could be community service, or a singing group, or a sport, or even an art class that you signed up for "just for fun." It could also, of course, be reading novels, or mixing up chemicals in a lab, or learning about the stars. But learn about it—whatever it is. Write about it—talk about it. If you're lucky, you'll find an outlet for that writing (thanks to Inside Higher Ed for letting me natter on about knitting periodically!)—but even if you don't, you'll find that your thoughts are clearer, your ability to express them sharper, as you work through your ideas. And as you learn more about whatever it is that you love, you're getting the most important training there is—in how to learn.