Remember when you were a little kid and they told you could be anything you want when you grow up? That was so nice. "They" of course is Sesame Street, or whatever show those of you who grew up with cable were watching. No, I will not catch most of your references to "Hey Arnold." Sad, I know. But Sesame Street had Spanish lessons and I speak Spanish now, so really, who wins? (The Hey Arnold kids totally win).
Anyway. It was such a lovely idea that you could be anything. A ballerina, an astronaut, a doctor...really anything with a recognizable outfit and an explanation five year olds can grasp. They keep up this farce right through high school and even into college. Remember those motivational posters stuck on the walls of the gym? If you can dream it, you can do it! Really, the idea that you can become anything you want runs deep in American culture. All it takes to achieve the American dream is some elbow grease, bootstraps, grindstones and some other metaphors I'm sure Sarah Palin would be happy to provide. If you can dream it, you can do it.
The worst part, to my mind, is that once you go to college and declare a liberal arts major they keep going with this notion that you can be anything. A liberal arts education prepares you for a huge number of professions, they love telling you. Here, you will learn to write, research, argue, think critically, and here you will become an Educated Person. Well, great. There was a time when that was all you needed to get a job, but it's not anymore--and no one ever sits you down and says, "Okay, let's talk about how you're going to take this degree in philosophy and turn it into something that will eventually cut you a paycheck."
For the record, I believe a liberal arts education is a really valuable thing. The world needs people like us, because otherwise all we'd have is numbers and data and brushed stainless steel. (I guess my world without the liberal arts looks like "I, Robot" with Will Smith? I don't know.) I don't disavow my decision to major in English. I feel like an educated person. But, in one area, I feel like my education has already failed me in a big way. Writing is what I'm good at, but I'm staring down the barrel of the gun that is the real world and nobody's offered me even an inkling of how I'm supposed to take what I'm good at and turn it into a job.
Now, I'm figuring it out on my own, and I've got my fingers crossed that everything will look better in a year. But does UNH actually think that my courses in the Post Colonial Novel and Shakespeare and drawing and art history have actually made me a competitive candidate for a real job? (Technically I'll have a degree in journalism and be qualified to write for newspapers, but these days that's like majoring in physics and banking on becoming an astronaut.) Are the university bigwigs so out of touch that they don't realize that in today's market their students aren't qualified for anything, or do they not care?
Salon recently ran an article called "Is is time to kill the liberal arts degree?." Now, I'm resoundingly against killing the liberal arts degree, but I do wish somebody would recognize that liberal arts students need a little more of a plan than engineers, and that it might be nice if our university could throw us a little guidance. Some personal finance, some computer skills, some basic understanding of business, a little career counseling. Hell, it could be a whole class. No, it's not romantic. It's not living on coffee and cigarettes and scribbling the great American novel in your vermin-infested apartment. It's not grappling with philosophical conundrums. But it's goddamn common sense. Until academia realizes that liberal arts majors need to live and work in today's crazy-ass job market the same as everybody else, all we're going to have is a lot of Latin-speaking bag boys and dishwashers quoting Kafka.