With junior spring comes a flurry of dreaded questions that are all too familiar to upper-level students.
“Where are you working this summer? Do you know what you want to do after graduation? We’re almost seniors, you know.” (Yes, I know. Please don’t remind me.)
My friends jokingly lament that we should have all been Econ majors or learned Python and are all a little too aware of the impending job hunt that will begin in a semester’s time.
As a liberal arts major, all of these conversations had me thinking, well, what did I learn during my time here? I don’t know how to code in multiple computer languages. I’m still learning how to research. I only recently discovered how much I love to write. No matter how many times I read Kant, it still takes me an inordinate amount of time to piece together his arguments. Most of the classes I’ve taken here have been seminars centered around theory, discussions in abstract terms about philosophers who have been dead for centuries or complex world issues we feel removed from. After almost six semesters of my Yale career, do I have anything to show for it?
What I’ve found, however, is that this is the wrong question to ask. Or at least, it’s not being approached in the right way. A bullet-point list of every skill we’ve acquired implies that Yale is merely skills-based training. However, we have the rest of our lives to train for the jobs and careers that we want. Very few jobs that we are hired for will directly use tangible things we’ve learned in class, and that’s all right. Most jobs have orientations and trainings, anyways. Many of us want to go to graduate school — specialization isn’t something that we should avoid forever, but it also isn’t something we should rush.
Many of us at Yale are quick to specialize, partially because of a desire to concretely define what we’ve learned in order to appear hirable. It’s not that we shouldn’t worry about employment, but it is incredibly narrow-minded to pick your classes with a singular focus on needing to be hirable or becoming an expert in something. Resist this urge. As people who are characteristically risk-averse and desire security above most things, it’s not easy. But we signed up for an education, not a four-year job training.
Instead, we should view our undergraduate education as an experience that is valuable in and of itself. I’m not saying that I haven’t learned anything. Of course, I’ve learned. A lot. But part of the beauty of my Yale education is that it isn’t tangible. If I really had to, I could list all the concepts and histories that I’ve learned — from Plato’s Allegory of the Cave to the nuances of insurance policy. However, that wouldn’t paint a fair picture of my Yale academic experience. I’ve learned more than facts, I’ve learned to think critically and how to engage with plenty of new perspectives. I’ve learned to be passionate, I’ve learned to love what I do.
To my underclassmen friends, don’t worry about specializing. Pick your major based on classes that interest you — ones that make your eyes light up and that you can’t help but profess your love for to anyone who will listen. And if you’re really concerned about employment, remember that employers will pick up on authenticity. If you can speak passionately about what you’ve studied, you will come off as an infinitely more motivated of a worker than someone who can only list a set of skills and tepidly discuss the classes they took. It’s easy to find someone who can code, but it’s not easy to find a candidate who is motivated and cares about what they love.
In my experience, semesters with classes from a wide array of departments have been the most fulfilling, much more so than those where I am forced to tick off requirements for my major. Ironically, those diverse semesters have been ones where I have been able to draw the most parallels between classes, connecting concepts across disciplines. Taking classes in both psychology and history, math and philosophy challenges you to think in a variety of different ways. I’m not rejecting the idea that we shouldn’t learn interesting and new skills — take a computer science class or learn a new language — but stop approaching your academic career as a mere stepping stone to your professional career and let your head spin. Ideally, we’d have a lot less requirements for our majors, but I don’t make the rules.
I can’t quantify or neatly condense what I’ve learned in my time here, and if I could, that would be besides the point. But that’s what makes it so much stronger, what makes it a liberal arts education.
One day after leaving office hours, having discussed this exact idea of what a liberal arts education could give me, I felt a charge in the air. I unapologetically daydreamed, indulging myself in the grandiose visions I had for myself. As the beautiful houses loomed over me on Hillhouse Avenue, my dreams felt both as distant as the branches that sprawled above me, yet miraculously attainable if I just reached a little taller. I felt incredibly grateful to be where I was — with such a variety of opportunities within my reach. In that moment, I felt almost intoxicated by the power of what could be, if only I were brave enough to spread my wings.
Hala El Solh is a junior in Berkeley College. Her column runs on alternate Wednesdays. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .