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The problem with Arts and Letters

| Tuesday, October 7, 2014

The Question. The question every university student hates to answer, hates to really contemplate outside the odd, self-analytical moment. “What do you want to do after college?” A seemingly innocent investigative prodding that results in a sudden downward spiral of self-doubt and loathing, as the future seems like a pretty formidable and daunting task to someone whose biggest concern at that moment might be whether or not I uploaded that assignment on Sakai last night.

If you are an engineer or a science major or a business major, the answer — while still, I am sure, difficult — is limited to whatever you are studying. You can say, “well my major is mechanical engineering, so I am obviously hoping to go into that field, which pays especially big bucks,” or, “I made the wise decision of studying marketing, so I imagine anywhere that has or needs a marketing team.” The interrogation ends with a smile and a nod at the sensible skills this student has learned and the bright future that lies ahead of them.

Now, if you are me, the answer brings up several more questions, none of which make you feel any better about what you have decided to do with your university degree.

“Well, at the moment, I am studying Program of Liberal Studies and Theatre…”

Mid-sentence cut-off: “What exactly is Program of Liberal Studies?”

Yes, what exactly is Program of Liberal Studies? My normal answer is that it is the most general major meant for the most indecisive people who really couldn’t decide on anything specific within the humanities requirements (my attempt at a joke). According to our website, however, PLS “offers an integrated liberal arts education, with courses in the fine arts, history, literature, philosophy, science and theology, and is rooted in the Great Books tradition with its seminar method of teaching.” Now, I could memorize that and tell it to all those confused people who asked me, but I prefer my own, slightly more humorous, explanation.

The moment after I explain come the looks of pity, and then, “so what do you plan on doing with that after university?” If I were a wittier person, I’d look them straight in the eye and in a completely deadpan voice, respond, “My friends and I actually plan on living on a compound in the middle of the Midwest, where we will tend sheep and live in a completely utilitarian society, with no money and no religion, because PLS has really taught me the value of thinking for yourself and not following corporate America.” Instead, I shuffle my feet subconsciously, scratch my head and sheepishly reply, “I’d like to go into acting, but if that falls through, maybe writing. I’m not quite sure at the moment.”

That’s the problem with Arts and Letters. Unlike the apprenticeship majors in the other colleges, where from the get-go you are trained in the skills that your major’s profession prescribes, there isn’t really much guidance. The most useful (practically speaking) majors in Arts and Letters are the various languages, unless you study Latin, which means you are even worse off than I am. Although, I suppose you could provide much amusement and distraction by drunkenly reciting passages of the Aeneid.

Now, there is some comradeship to being in Arts and Letters, which the other majors might not have. We are all in this sinking ship, so we might as well enjoy it. If you walk through the crumbling hallways of O’Shag, as all our graduates seem to be able to afford is the grand front entrance and not much else, you realize that we might possibly meet again as workers in some indie coffee shop on a seedy side street of New York City. And then there are the knowing looks as that one gullible freshman thinks that he or she really is thirsty enough to drink that rusty water coming from the water fountains (which to be honest, are probably a great source of iron). And the moments in 214 O’Shag when the air conditioning, appalled at the idea that you have decided to study St. Augustine’s “City of God” rather than the practical ideas of Einstein, decides to up the volume on its wind machine loudly and continuously for about 15 minutes before stopping, only to decide something else offends it five minutes later. This building has decided it will make us appreciate what our living situations will be when we are all working as baristas.

So why did I decide to join this parade of misfits? Why did I willingly jump on this bandwagon of job uncertainty and little monetary gain? I am sure my professors would say because I am learning something truly valuable. That I might not know how to rewrite chemical equations, but St. Augustine has taught me to love generously and Cicero and Machiavelli have told me to live pragmatically, and even Cervantes has taught me not to take life too seriously. That when I have graduated, I will have garnered a wonderful education that will prepare me for anything and everything that is out there in the world.

But really, I just did it for the free coffee in the PLS lounge.

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

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