I Did It My Way or The Importance of the Liberal Arts

Crystal AvenueLast week I was reading an article in the Washington Post about how my generation has been churning out helicopter parents who don’t want their kids to study literature or liberal arts.

Curious, I inquired how many were history majors. Of the 24 honors students in the seminar, there were none. English? Philosophy? Fine arts? Only one. How was this possible? I asked. Almost in unison, half a dozen replied: “Our parents wouldn’t let us.” The results were similar when I surveyed freshmen in another honors seminar this spring. This time, I asked how many would have been humanities majors if the only criteria were what they were interested in and what they were good at. Ten of the 24 raised their hands.

And…

Harvard University professor Jill Lepore recalled hosting an information session at her home for undergraduates interested in a program she directs on history and literature. One student who attended, Lepore told the New York Times, kept getting text messages from her parents ordering her to leave the meeting immediately.

Note that I would give my eyeteeth (who needs to chew anyway?) to study with Jill Lepore! Who was that stupid parent?

It turns out that parents are worried that kids with degrees in the liberal arts won’t make money. Except that notion is rather ridiculous. I know scores and scores of people with English degrees that turned out just fine. Including me.

I have a double major in English Literature and in Writing, with minors in Communications and French. Years later I went back for my M.A. in Critical & Creative Thinking (CCT), which rides the line between liberal arts/science/business. That English degree didn’t stop me from getting jobs. On the contrary, it led me into a career in marketing that currently pays me rather well. My liberal arts degree has probably given me a massive leg up in the tech world where the ability to communicate complex ideas in a way that is accessible is a skill to be prized. Better yet, I am doing something that is enjoyable and it keeps me creative, which feeds into my true love–writing.

My degree was a well-rounded one, however. That’s the whole idea of a liberal arts degree, after all. Later, when trying to figure out what to do for my graduate degree, I chose not to get my MFA. I admit, the reason is the same as that of those helicopter parents–I wasn’t sure I could make money as a writer. Well, that’s not true. I’ve always been sure I’ll make money, but it was a matter of how much.

I would have loved getting my MFA. Writing? Working with other writers? Sounds like heaven. But I knew that after the MFA I didn’t want to scrape by for the sake of my art. Plus, as someone who will be paying off my undergrad student loans until six months after I turn sixty-five, I wanted some measure of solvency. I grew up watching my family struggle. I myself spent many a day in the Whitworth College admissions office crying because I wasn’t sure how I was going to pay the super steep tuition for my undergrad on my own. So when it came to figuring out how I could get a graduate degree that I was sure would make a difference, I knew it wasn’t going to be the MFA. Nor did I want an MBA which I thought would be just plain soul-sucking. Instead, I went for the CCT degree. I wanted something that would be good for my work in marketing but also fueled my desire to make something of myself as a writer. It turned out to be perfect. What was so perfect about it, in my mind, is that it didn’t pigeonhole me into a specific career path. It gave me skills that are broad and that apply to any job that I decide to pursue.

Back to that article:

You might not expect college freshmen to understand that careers don’t proceed in straight lines, but surely their parents ought to. In the real world, most physics majors don’t become physicists, most psychology majors don’t become psychologists, and most English majors don’t become writers or teachers. You’ll find a surprising number of philosophy majors at hedge funds and lots of political-science majors at law firms… Among chief executives of the largest corporations, there are roughly as many engineers and liberal arts majors, in total, as there are undergraduate majors in business, accounting and economics combined. Indeed, one study found that only 27 percent of people have jobs that are substantially related to their college majors.

Exactly. I would argue that in many ways a degree that enables you to experience a broad, liberal education with an emphasis in certain areas but exposure to a variety of educational ideas, is ideal.

So while I get what those parents are thinking–they want their kids to have a career path, it’s not a guarantee, even if you send your child to law school, or for their science degree. Maybe what they really want is something else entirely. I’m glad that I paid for my own education and that no one had a say in what I wanted to pursue but me. I’m doubly glad that I had the chance to study a wide variety of topics including literature, languages, science, religion, business, and culture. It gave me a real understanding of where I wanted to go and how I could satisfy the two big desires for my career–a job that I could love that would make me money while practicing what I loved even more–writing. That liberal arts degree enabled me to have my cake and eat it too.

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Crystal King is a writer, culinary enthusiast and social media expert. Her writing is fueled by a love of history and an obsession with the food, language and culture of Italy. She has taught writing, creativity and social media at Grub Street and several universities including Harvard Extension School and Boston University. Crystal received her masters in critical and creative thinking from University of Massachusetts Boston. She lives with her husband and their two cats in the Boston area.

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2 thoughts on “I Did It My Way or The Importance of the Liberal Arts

  1. My parents never went to college, so they saved up my whole life so I could go. And it was never primarily career-based — it was to get to be a better person (not morally better — more like more well-rounded and capable).

    So, there’s that, but also, why would you want to limit yourself to the careers that existed when you were in college? What about all the people doing web design, for example, who went to college before there was a web? 🙂

  2. Exactly! I think that was more of the thought in the past–college gave you a leg up but it wasn’t the end-all-be-all in what you ended up doing. Now there is standardized testing from a super young age, massive piles of homework for kids and parents pushing their kids to conform to a certain path (I saw this when I was teaching at the college level and my husband who works in a college can also attest to this). It’s so limiting all around.

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