I don’t ask anymore. I don’t ask that ever-popular question liberal arts students hear so often they can’t stand it anymore: “What do you plan to do with your degree?”
A student emailed me this recently: “My pet peeve is people who ask me—all the time!—‘Are you planning to be a teacher?’ And when I say ‘no,’ they ask what I plan to do with my degree! Can’t I major in history and not be a teacher afterwards?”
Of all the history majors I personally have ever known, I can think of only one who became a teacher, and even she isn’t doing that anymore. (She’s a youth group organizer at a non-profit.)
That question (“What are you going to do with your major?”) implies there’s a linear path from degree to job, and college students had better be following it. Accounting majors become accountants, and electrical engineer majors become electrical engineers.
But life isn’t linear, and neither are careers, and liberal arts students aren’t linear thinkers. They’re systems thinkers who see disparate elements in a larger context, who can derive big ideas from stray pieces and parts. They’re people who ask The Big Questions (“Why are we here?”) and then think about how the answers can be realized in everyday life, through practical things like jobs, politics and other practical elements of daily living.
Why is this question popular? I mean, we hear it all the time. Is it that we can’t think of anything else to say? “I’m majoring in Spanish.” “Oh, what grade do you want to teach?” Are we unimaginative enough that’s the only question that comes to mind?
The reason the question is popular is because we hate uncertainty. It’s something of a cultural norm: no-risk living is the goal! Don’t wander; have a destination (a profitable one, preferably). Be stable, be secure. Get a degree, get a job. Get a job, have an income. Have an income, buy the American Dream. That’s a linear path leading to certainty, minimizing risk, keeping us safe, healthy, making us live long lives with the “right” partner. Certainty is the goal, and as the economy continues to struggle, the likelihood of prosperity and the comfortable living that goes with it seem more elusive than ever.
But people who are creative, who solve problems, who shape business to be the driver that answers the questions that matter most to human beings take risk. They know that applying knowledge to real-world problems is not a well-worn career path. It requires exploration, an understanding of culture, an exploration of meaning—which liberal arts students are prepared for in ways others are not.
So the next time someone asks you, “You’re majoring in what? And what do you want to do with a degree in that?!?” don’t smile or fidget or wonder how to avoid saying “I’m going to teach.” Instead, square your shoulders and say “I’ll be working on society’s most difficult problems, thanks to my education, which has prepared me to think critically and communicate well.”
No engineering major on the planet can say that.