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Arts, crafts and passion

| Sunday, April 27, 2014

The graduate with a science degree asks, “Why does it work?” The graduate with an engineering degree asks, “How does it work?” The graduate with an accounting degree asks, “How much will it cost?” The graduate with a liberal arts degree asks, “Do you want fries with that?”

Majoring in Arts and Crafts. The College of Farts and Letters. I could write an entire comedy sketch based on the number of jokes I’ve heard aimed at my chosen field of study over the past four years. My sketch wouldn’t receive much applause because all the jokes are flat and repetitive, more inane than clever. My material would be rather stale, consisting of attacks on future employment prospects and predictable one-liners alluding to levels of classroom difficulty. I would likely leave the stage without having drawn a single laugh from my audience. I might even face some thrown tomatoes and have to duck browning heads of lettuce. So instead of comedy, I decided to write my very first Viewpoint rant: “Arts, crafts and passion.”

I’ve spent a large part of my undergraduate experience railing — both internally and vocally — against the negative preconceptions that liberal arts students face on a sadly regular basis. Regretfully, the silly jokes I referenced at the beginning of this article are only a small part of why I’ve experienced deeper, uglier feelings over the past three years. Friends, family members, coworkers and strangers alike have all made me feel naive and foolish at times for preferring history to accounting. I’ve felt my face burn with embarrassment when I’m told, with a condescending smile, that liberal arts will provide me with no tangible skill set to present to employers. I’ve even been told this by a cynical liberal arts professor. Worse than the crushing superiority is the actual anger many harbor towards young people who, like myself, prefer social sciences to natural sciences. To them we are selfish and privileged, embodying a colossal flaw in society. To them, we have chosen the easy path when our country needs more students to invest in mathematics and science. We have thrown our money at degrees that will not only fail us in our personal financial lives, but will also fail American society at large. To them, our society needs doctors and engineers. It doesn’t need linguists and anthropologists.

These kinds of repeated criticisms, whether they are thinly veiled or not, have made me become defensive. When I introduce myself and my fields of study to strangers, I often have the follow-up answer prepared well before they have even asked the question: “History? Peace studies? Really? What on earth are you planning to do with that?” I rush to change their opinions the moment they have been voiced.

Please believe I am not an overly greedy or selfish human. I am not trying to ruin America, waste my youth dallying in the arts and then fail to strengthen the economy after graduation. Surprisingly enough, I didn’t choose the College of Arts and Letters because I wanted a higher GPA or more free weekends of reckless partying or even because I couldn’t decide on a major freshman year. The formal answer to why I am pursuing my degrees is: “I believe the combination of military history and conflict resolution studies, in addition to my work experiences derived from research and internships, will best help me attain my career goal to work on nuclear weapons policy and help form international law regarding emerging weaponry.”

The real answer is much longer and more complicated; it contains an admittedly idealistic quote I learned at a summer camp and an explanation of what makes me passionate.

People are afraid of the word passion. I read an article addressing the matter four days ago on a professional networking site. The author warned against using “passion” in business résumés and cover letters; he explained that, aside from being laughably overused, the term was hollow and meaningless, a two-syllable cliché devoid of deeper meaning and used as a filler by lazy interviewees.

Maybe the reason everyone references his or her passions is because everyone is passionate. Everyone. About something. Not just at Notre Dame, a haven of type-A personalities and chronic overachievers, but everywhere.

I don’t just mean in the liberal arts either. This semester, I was lucky enough to meet and befriend two incredibly smart, talented and kind finance majors. Both have explained to me, independently, the reasons behind their chosen field of study. I’ve watched both of their faces light up as they’ve found an opportunity to explain a simple economic theory to me in class, and I’ve listened in awe as they explained the complexities involved in the Eurozone crisis. Both are adamant that they would not intern with prestigious banking firms in New York this summer if they did not love the work they do. In short, both of them are passionate about finance. They apply it to their everyday lives outside of the classroom, and they want to commit themselves to it not solely for personal gain, but also to benefit others.

And, just like me, they have their own slew of negative stereotypes to combat, those suggesting Wall Street is full of heartless, cold and entirely self-interested entrepeneurs. At the same time, the business school is rumored to be a school for slackers and the classes at Mendoza something of a joke.

The same goes for each college at Notre Dame and each major within those colleges. Each has certain stereotypes to face, yet each is brimming with potential and (yes, I’m going to say it again) passion.

What bothers me is this mentality that one person’s passion can be weighed, measured and found to be more valuable than another’s. It’s the idea that one student’s commitment to Shakespearean literature is less worthy of admiration than another’s commitment to aerospace engineering. At the end of the day, it’s all the same, whether we analyze market trends or iambic pentameter. Passion motivates us to perform even when morning classes are hellish and exams seem impossible. Passion brings us joy when we perform well.

I’m proud to be a part of the College of Arts and Letters for so many reasons. It has given me new insight into and understanding of the world and my place in it. It has provided me with opportunities to learn from incredible mentors and alongside incredible peers. It has both broadened and refined my academic and career interests.
I’m not proud because I believe my college is superior to the other colleges at my university. It is different, but not superior. It is equally important, just for a different kind of person.

We are all young and have many years ahead of us. We’ve grown up in a world of mixed signals, with parents and teachers reminding us that anything is possible while job market statistics and economic recessions have told us otherwise. I can’t speak for my entire generation, but this environment of mixed signals has led me to be oddly and cautiousy hopeful, abiding by a mantra of “work hard in a field you love; opportunities are endless but you must be wise and seize them.” It’s brought me here, to majors I adore and to formerly mercurial career goals that seem to materialize, becoming more and more real every day. It’s brought me to a liberal arts degree, but it’s brought others to science, business and architecture. All are different, but all are valuable.

Originally, I wanted to lay out very specific points of validation in this article, explaining in a structured argument why the liberal arts is more important than other fields of study, and far more important than they are given credit for. But in the process of writing and thinking, I guess my conclusion is actually much more about the importance of mutual respect in academics and, later, in that infamous post-graduate “real world.” It’s more about my idealistic world-view that goes something like this: we only have one chance at life on this earth, and the best way to live it is by gaining experiences and knowledge that will help us excel at the things we are passionate about. In return, we can use our knowledge, experience and passions to help others excel and achieve their goals.

It’s about that beautiful Howard Thurman quote I heard at summer camp one July in high school: “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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