When I was in college, I rarely thought about what I’d do after graduation. I briefly considered becoming a doctor until I realized that would require passing organic chemistry. I weighed a career in law, but the idea of wearing a suit to work made me itch.
So I just cruised along, an English major avoiding any class that smacked of practicality. Let the squares and worrywarts study accounting or computer programming — I was too busy grappling with T.S. Eliot, Jacques Derrida and Samuel Taylor Coleridge to fret about what came next.
Then I graduated into the teeth of the 1991 recession and found myself unable even to get a job selling ice cream cones. I temped for a year before landing a full-time gig doing data entry. The work barely required a pulse, let alone a bachelor’s degree.
Yet I never regretted my undergraduate nonchalance, figuring things would eventually work out, and sure enough, they did. But when I look back on my college days now, I feel like an ex-hippie mourning the end of the ’60s.
Knowledge for the sake of knowledge was far out, man, but times have changed. You kids had better not try it yourselves.
This is the time of year when many college students settle on a major, and while that decision has never been easy, today it seems as risk-laden as sipping the punch at a fraternity party. Most of today’s college students finance their studies with loans, and the Project on Student Debt calculates the graduates’ average tab is $23,200. Even adjusting for inflation, that’s two-thirds higher than it was in 1993.
At the same time, the outlook for many careers is lousy, including some of the old fallbacks for humanities students.
Law school grads are increasingly tending the bar, not passing it. Fledgling wordsmiths, artists and photographers are struggling to find a place in the shrinking media industry. And with academic hiring as frozen as an Alaska halibut, it might be easier to become the next American Idol than a tenured professor.
Paul Harrington, a labor scholar and co-author of the "College Majors Handbook," told me the safest paths appear to be finance and engineering. While he had sympathy for students with more cultured tastes, he said that more than ever, they need to figure out how their studies might translate into a job.
"In the arts and sciences, the burden on making it work rests on them much more than it does in a professional field," Harrington said. "This is a labor market that’s just a lot less forgiving."
A lot of students — and colleges — have gotten the message.
Educators say today’s humanities major tends to think pragmatically. She’s choosing a job-specific minor, chasing a corporate internship and networking like a pro long before she gets her cap and gown.
The English department at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign keeps a list of mentors who can guide students into everything from publishing to medicine. Western Illinois’ history department maintains a robust Web site highlighting career options for graduates (most intriguing suggestion: "resort consultant").
And Lake Forest College, a small liberal arts school, recently added a neuroscience major meant to catapult graduates straight into the growing pharmaceutical and technology industries.
This is all very intelligent, and as a parent who sinks money into my kids’ college fund every month, I certainly understand the emphasis on practicality. But I think it’s sad.
Undergraduate education is the only chance most of us will ever have to sample the life of the mind. What a shame to go through it with one eye on your future cubicle.
So here’s to all you modern dance majors, aspiring archaeologists and would-be gender theorists. When skeptics ask what you’re planning to do with that degree, tell them you’re going to be a thoughtful, contributing member of society. That’s still what education is supposed to be about, right?
All the same, if those skeptics happen to own an ice cream parlor, you might want to slip them a firstname.lastname@example.org"resume.