“What the hell are you studying?”
The manager at the deli where I had a part-time job was looking over my shoulder, squinting his eyes. I was reading during my lunch break, and I suspect his confusion came from seeing the title of the book in my hands. It was called “Magic, Witchcraft, and Religion”. Or maybe it was my class notes on the counter that caught his attention; they were taken at my last lecture, given by none other than a shaman.
I told him my major, Cultural Anthropology. The next words out of his mouth were predictable, and nothing new to my ears.
“What can you possibly do with that degree? Sounds useless.”
I was studying at a liberal arts college, and that was not the first time someone had commented on my courses of study. Truthfully, even earlier in my life I had been the subject of a bit of scrutiny, because in my public high school I elected to be a “senior art major”, where a flexible curriculum allowed me to explore my creativity. That choice raised more than a few parental eyebrows.
Over twenty years have passed. My academic and professional paths were twisty, and they led to an unexpected destination; I became a scientist. I now work as a biology professor in addition to practicing veterinary medicine.
That “wasted time” as a high school art major, and my “useless” college degree ultimately got me here.
When the students I teach learn that my undergraduate degree was in Cultural Anthropology, they look at me inquisitively. Their confusion stems from the misconception that their major needs to get them into a singular life-long career, the minute they graduate. I know this because their parents sit in my office, asking me to direct their children to a program of study that will indeed get them into said career the minute they graduate.
I get it. It’s scary out there. When I finished my degree, well-paying jobs were certainly more plentiful than they are now. The cost of higher education has grown exponentially since then. Average student debt is so high, it seems harder to traverse than Mount Everest. I feel this last point personally, because even now my bank account takes an enormous monthly sock in the gut when my loan payments come due.
However, the incessant panic about finding a program of study that will teach students their jobs, and only their jobs, is breaking my heart. And I worry that it has very serious consequences.
What I learned in high school and college has proven itself essential to my career. More specifically, my time exploring a plethora of subjects taught me how to think. I was asked to critically consider topics from various disciples, even from multiple perspectives. I fine-tuned my ability to observe, research, quantify, evaluate, and consider. I worked hard and struggled mightily, and to this day, I rely on the skills I developed during that time. And I feel especially indebted to my programs of study when I consider current events in this election year… because I was taught how to rifle through rhetoric. Thanks to the skills I developed in those “useless” programs, I know how to evaluate speeches and poll numbers. I can fact-check statements made at a debate and I understand the importance of reliable sources. I learned that an informed opinion matters.
For that, I am eternally grateful.
That brings me to the core of my concerns. Without diverse and broad exploratory educational choices for students, the world suddenly becomes a very scary place to me; a place where people might know all of Kim Kardashian’s activities, obsess over the “Dancing with the Stars” finalists, consider Facebook their daily news source, and easily recite the names of the cartoon characters that live in South Park.
But they might not know much about the people vying to live at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, DC. As a result, reality television stars and fear mongers that scream and shout and dance about can, shockingly, be considered serious candidates for work in the oval office – mostly likely for a single, very simple reason; they are recognizable.
And I don’t see those same candidates proposing any significant fixes for the problematic educational system in the U.S.
It seems we are in a vicious cycle.
It makes my head hurt to see how little financial support we have for our students. My heart sinks when I hear people demanding new programs of study that are only there to prepare young people for employment, because they feel it is the one strategy that will allow them to pay the mountain of debt they accumulate during their studies. I watch in horror as public schools struggle, colleges close, majors like mine are slashed, and liberal arts loses more and more of – well – the arts. I panic because educators consistently find themselves losing the ability to introduce students to different ways of thinking because schools are underfunded, employees are overworked, and the role of the teacher as a facilitator of learning is woefully underappreciated.
But I found a source of hope just the other day… a group of students.
I had the privilege of observing a multidisciplinary class at a liberal arts college… a class that many might consider “useless”. I watched young people around me excitedly share ideas and expand their thinking. Everyone was eagerly applying their readings and the class discussion to current topics in the news. They were learning how to critically evaluate, right there in front of me. It was fantastic – the polar opposite of useless.
I thought back to my lunch break decades ago. If I had another chance, and I again heard the question “what can you possibly do with that degree?”, I know exactly how I would respond.
With full authority, and a smile on my face, I would say: