ZELINSKY: Finding a focus in the liberal arts

All my friends seem to have a theme. They build their Yale careers around sexy topics like public health, economic development or the environment. One friend has wanted to be a pediatric oncologist since age 7; another fell in love with paleontology after a middle school class trip. When they search for summer internships or contemplate careers after Yale, they know exactly where they are going — be it an African NGO or medical school.

But I have no theme.

I can’t help but feel left out. I still haven’t found that thematic North Star to guide my life. When I told my friends this, they scoffed: Wasn’t my theme conservative politics? Yes, to some extent. But my public persona at Yale reflects my beliefs, not necessarily my life plan. I have academic passions and values I hold dear. But those do not make a road map for the future.

As I contemplate my options for this summer, I find myself at a loss, despite possessing limitless possibilities. This freedom frustrates me. How do I begin looking when I don’t know where to start? To some extent, having too many options can be paralyzing. I would think some seniors searching for jobs could commiserate.

It seems that everyone expects me to have a theme. At every family gathering, the question inevitably arises: “So, what do you study?” And I try to mumble something. Sometimes, I take the subject of a seminar and make it my focus du jour. Other times, I play up my major. Regardless, I can’t escape the sensation of not knowing what specialized topic defines me.

The problem originates with the liberal arts education, a concept I swallowed hook, line and sinker — and one I still believe in. Unfortunately, cross-disciplinary, broad-based learning does not lend itself to a focused theme like global women’s rights. The Western canon teaches us how to live the good life. But it also does a shoddy job of directing us toward the ideal summer internship or career.

One professor I asked for advice told me not to worry. Students who specialize in one topic do so to avoid life’s difficult question: Who do you want to be? They pick the easy way out by following the trends of the moment. Down the road, they realize they dislike their chosen themes.

He might be correct — in fact, I can think of some cases where I know he is. On the other hand, many of my friends exude genuine passion for their chosen field of study. Even if they are faking it, I still have no idea what to do, even just for a summer.

When I talked to another mentor about my summer dilemma, he turned my question back on me: “If you could have an ideal three months, what would it entail?” Unfortunately, if I could answer that question, I never would have walked into his office.

We can heap some blame on society. A world of themes encourages everyone to have one. When a business looks at two otherwise equal resumes, it chooses the applicant who specializes in the industry. The themeless lose out, and doors begin to close. Your options do not look as limitless as you originally thought.

Against this backdrop, I can see why so many Yalies go into banking, consulting or Teach for America for a summer or after graduation. These employers require no theme; they sometimes even admire a liberal arts education.

I would love to end this column with a tidbit of advice for like peers struggling to find internships or jobs at this very moment. But I still cannot answer the question for myself. I don’t know if I will have answered it six months or five years from now. I am not sure I ever will. But that doesn’t make the question any less important.

Nathaniel Zelinsky is a junior in Davenport College. His column runs on Mondays. Contact him at nathaniel.zelinsky@yale.edu.


  • alphabetical

    whoa, humility!

  • The Anti-Yale

    The liberal arts make old age a lot more interesting, I can assure you: a buffet not a burger.


    • penny_lane

      Oh man, now I really want a burger…

      • The Anti-Yale

        Try the EBA burger (with the works) at Everything But Anchovies, a college hang-out in Hanover.

  • public_editor

    Does Nathaniel Zelinsky steal all his ideas, or did he just get lazy with this one?


    • 13

      I started reading expecting a response to that article. I don’t think he stole it though, I think he’s bringing forward a consideration that I, too, worry about.

  • Jess

    Serious question: how can the Western canon help you live the good life if it can’t help you decide what you should spend the bulk of the rest of your life doing?

    • eli2015

      because it can teach you how to live it

      • Jess

        That’s not actually an answer. How can I know how to live a good life without knowing what I’m actually doing on a day-to-day basis?

        • eli2015

          What you do on a day-to-day basis is particular to you, and should come from self-reflection regarding your abilities and preferences. The Western Canon isn’t meant to shed light on your particular situation – it deals with universal themes and the human condition shared by everybody. The Western Canon isn’t supposed to give your career direction; it’s meant to teach you what it means to be human and live in society.

          • River_Tam

            One can read the Western Canon and also learn a skill for which an employer might want to hire you.

  • Jaymin

    As much as I want to sympathize with Nate, I wouldn’t so readily throw away “themes”.

    Part of the point of a liberal arts education is to expose yourself to a hodgepodge of classes, internships, and extracurriculars for 4 years, allowing you to figure out what you actually care about. Obviously we should keep doors open as exit points in case our “themes” don’t end up working out, but having no theme at all indicates, if anything, a failure of the liberal arts curriculum. And honestly, we’re into our 20s, we’re going to graduate as independent entities, and are on the cusp of getting married and having kids. There’s wisdom in having our s*** at least partially together.

  • River_Tam

    Good…. good… I feel the fear flowing through you.

  • The Anti-Yale

    “Serious question: how can the Western canon help you live the good life if it can’t help you decide what you should spend the bulk of the rest of your life doing?”

    Life isn’t a menu from which you choose what you want. Sometimes serendipity takes over.

    I didn’t find my ‘calling’ till I was 42 and had already completed three of four degrees.

    Prior to that I thought I was “destined” for “big’ things.

    Every time I tried to be a big shot, life cut me down to size until I became a simple high school English teacher —-and found happiness in being a small shot.


  • Dedwards

    With a liberal arts degree you can always go into lobbying in DC. Takes absolutely no skill and pays like Goldman. Retire at 35 with $10m in the bank and then worry about your life’s theme.

  • penny_lane

    I’m not sure why you’re trying to equate the “broad based learning” definition of liberal arts (which, theoretically, includes studying mathematics, hard sciences and social sciences as well as humanities) and the “reading the whole Western Canon” definition. There is general value to both, but in the end, it’s your personal values which will determine which is more valuable to you.

    This might be one of the corniest things I’ve ever said, but you have to figure out what changes you want to see in the world, and what your role will be in bringing them to fruition. Most Yale students rightly recognize that they’re poised to do something slightly more lofty than become insurance salesmen or HR reps, but having that freedom of choice can be a disadvantage as well as an advantage. Another thing worth taking note of is figuring out what you do when you’re not fulfilling your role as a student. I figured out early on that I often naturally found myself helping people through tough situations, which led to me acquiring training as a counselor and finally a job doing research in clinical psychology. My literature background, however, will never leave me. I am still a writer, and I still aim to publish someday. Who says you can’t have it all, right?

    Your friends might be right to point out that your conservative values are your calling. The same can be said of David Brooks or Peggy Noonan, who are not politicians themselves but who definitely help shape the course of our national dialogue. They both got their start in journalism. My knowledge of The West Wing tells me that other speech writers get their start in the law, or in PR. Yale’s very own David Bromwich is a professor of literature, film and political philosophy, and moonlights as a liberal political commentator for the Huffington Post.

    We liberal arts types have a hard time picking that one thing and sticking to it. We like to sample from here and there, hop from road to road less traveled and back. We have a hard time distinguishing humanity from the humanities, and we are teased for it. In the end, however, the most savvy and confident among us make it work, and are not among those who wake up one morning with an MPH hating life.

    • penny_lane

      PS- None of what I wrote above will help you figure out what to do this summer. Do something fun. Or take a class. Not everyone needs an internship.