Perhaps this is a symptom of being a senior—I have been preoccupied with the tension between the rhetoric of a liberal education and the impending realities of the working world. My orientation toward either pole has shifted in three distinct phases, the final of which presently holds me suspended in the middle. Throughout my first year, I was preoccupied with thoughts of the common success denominator(s). By that, I mean that I was at times distracted by what everyone else was doing, rather than wholeheartedly trusting my choices. In spite of the well-known statistics concerning pre-meds, it was difficult responding to “What’s your major?” after everyone else in the given group had identified as future doctors, lawyers, and researchers (it’s music, if you’re curious). These feelings were initially acceptable because I came to college—whether I knew it then or not—to learn a more loving self-regulation of my insecurities. That is why first-year students experience the thoughts and doubts of first-year students.
As a sophomore, I discovered that the bracing rhetoric of a liberal education could displace my anxieties over the future. Those of us in the humanities can fall too easily on the false pedestal of self-righteousness for refusing to take the soul-selling way out into corporate or scientific life. We, the faithful preservers of the English language, the last guard against the onslaught of STEM, are the tragically fated humanists of our day … no thanks. This (albeit melodramatic) paradigm doesn’t serve. It denies that any modern profession within ethical and legal reason can be the foundation of a fulfilling life.
Now, my late undergraduate self stands in the midst of the pressures to retain authentic morals while reading and reacting to the unstable playing field of the professional world. It is good for us to chart our lives based on doing what we love. At Boston College, however, I have learned that it is insufficient to do what we love without considering it in the context of the world’s needs. There is one word that captures the combination of authenticity and awareness: preparedness.
There are two types of preparedness that correspond to the realms of rhetoric and reality. The media prefers to comment upon professional preparedness, and there is lively debate over the ability of American universities to ready students for the current working world. The latest installment I have read comes from the Op-Ed page of The New York Times. The author, Ben Carpenter, concludes that universities do not adequately prepare students, but his writing is based only on the statistics of graduates and employment ratings (a very important measurement of preparedness, I acknowledge). Carpenter proposes that the answer to unemployment is more rigorous—and mandatory—training for all undergraduates through their campus career services. Perhaps. He does not acknowledge, however, the other—equally important—half of preparedness that students must cultivate.
The vast majority of career gurus, life coaches, successfully employed members of the media, and myriad other “adults” are all too eager to advise us on the right moves to develop a competitive skill set for our chosen fields. They can teach students how to do, but few can prepare students for will happen when they start to “do.” In inelegant terms, fewer students are equipped with the preparedness to socially, intellectually, and emotionally self-regulate when the cracks appear in the veneer of the professional life. To explain, I turn to words more capable than mine from David Foster Wallace:
“And I submit that this is what the real, no bullshit value of your liberal arts education is supposed to be about: how to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone day in and day out. That may sound like hyperbole, or abstract nonsense. Let’s get concrete. The plain fact is that you graduating seniors do not yet have any clue what ‘day in day out’ really means. There happen to be whole, large parts of adult American life that nobody talks about in commencement speeches. One such part involves boredom, routine, and petty frustration.”
The thriving post-graduate life is not accessible simply by attending the right info sessions. I redirect you now to discover the rest of what David Foster Wallace recommends. For now, this is water, this is water, this is….
Featured Image by Kevin Hou / Heights Senior Staff