Archive for category Having a Liberal Arts Degree
During my senior year of college, I went to a professor of mine, and asked him this question: what can I do with a philosophy degree after I graduate? This was a question a lot of people had asked me and I never knew the answer. He told me this
A) you go to graduate school and become a professional, academic philosophy professor
B) you make a small switch, apply to law school, and become a lawyer
C) you flounder
It’s been about two years since I graduated college, and I can say now that there’s a fourth option.
But I didn’t know that two years ago. I thought I had only three choices. To answer the question, I used the secret technique I learned long before when training for a standardized test, the key to multiple choice questions: process of elimination.
I knew I didn’t want B) become a lawyer. I wasn’t sure about A) Become a professor- but I did know I didn’t want to do it right away. So I chose C) flounder, with the option of erasing my mark, and changing it to A), later in the test.
It was a rough beginning after graduation. I was devastated. I know that having a college degree is a blessing, and I should consider myself lucky to have one. I do. and I know ‘devastated’ sounds a bit melodramatic. But that’s what I was, devastated. For one, I didn’t know about option D). Also, it might help to explain the special meaning ‘devastated’ has.
‘Devastate’ comes from the Medieval Latin vastus, which means vast. But not vast like a sacred mountain, vast like a barren desert. Incredibly empty, immense. A waste-land. Think of how a German would say the word ‘waste-land’ (vaste-land) and you start to hear the similarity between vast and waste, magnitude and nothingness. It’s no coincidence that the Grand Canyon is called grand, even though it’s essentially empty space. Vast has a lot of cousins: vapid, vain, vacuum, void. All of them mean the same thing: empty. Not full. Un-full-filled. That’s how I felt after graduation: Unfulfilled, devastated that everything from kindergarten to college was a waste of time. Because seventeen years of education gave me three hollow choices.
Become a professor
Become a lawyer
I didn’t attend my graduation ceremony. I didn’t believe in it, the public recognition of my “achievement”.
I was in a waste-land. But the truth was, I was in a waste-land for a long time before that. Almost all of public education is a waste. At a young age you’re given busy work which means nothing, it’s just meant to keep you busy. It’s a big vaste of time. Add to that standardized achievement tests, which are deVoid of any purpose other than to determine how much funding your school will or will not receive. And that’s when I was in school, it’s only gotten worse since Bush launched No Child Left Behind and Obama expanded it. Music and history classes are being eVACuated so that kids can focus on multiple choice exams. And yet, we wonder why there are so many dropouts or, if we’re lucky, graduates who come out not knowing what to do, that they have other options.
It’s taken me all of two years to feel like I am flourishing, despite the fact that my path is unprescribed. First, I went off the deep end and went on a Walk About, a long bike trip to the Ohio River, a long story for another day that was really me trying to avoid the void. Then I came back, hunkered down and did the basics: got a job, an apartment, some independence. It was tough for a while, because I felt like I was floundering. I was ashamed to tell people I’m a barista, yet another over-educated worker in the service industry. But now I know I’m much more than that. I realized it today when an acquaintance- not a friend mind you but a mere acquaintance- asked me to watch his cats while he went on VAcation.
This was my graduation ceremony. The public has recognized me as a responsible, useful, and trust-worthy adult.
* * *
Last week, I ran into that old college professor. He asked me if I was in graduate school. No, I said. Then what are you doing, he asked, a look of confusion on his face. I’m… my voice trailed off… I could tell him all the things I’m doing: the job I’m holding the hobby I’m exploring, the neighborhood I’m joining the people I’m loving, the garden I’m raising the compost I’m making, the blog I’m writing the open mic I’m MCing, the sobriety I’m maintaining the serenity I’m chasing… but I just said to him, D) flourishing.
I’m not ungrateful for my teachers. Playing with a word like I did with devastation, that I learned from them. But what I’ve learned in the last two years outside the education system is that learning how to manage your own life involves not only a whole lot of practical stuff, but also coming to a place where you don’t feel like you’re wasting your time, your life, or your day. And no one can tell you how to do that, or what it looks like.
But I have one hint. It’s a Jewish word, mitzvah, and it means ‘worthy deed’. And guess what- it doesn’t have to be vast.
I just read that hipsters buck the convention of high-paying jobs they’re perfectly capable of having, working instead with their hands at places typically reserved for the proletariat. Yes, I said it, the proletariat- the bottom of the social ladder that supposedly doesn’t even exist (at least in this country). Or, if they do, it’s their fault and not that society requires the proletariat (Mitt and Barack each court “the middle class”, neither gives a shit about the poor. But even the poor don’t believe they are poor, they think they’re middle class. And for that matter, most rich people think they’re middle class, too. Basically every citizen in this goddamned country is middle class yet nobody needs two hands to count all the middle class people they know). I did not grow up proletariat, but in a bourgeois suburb that placed me at an early age on a conveyor belt where I went to honors class, then a decent college, and then a decent career. Oops, I work at a coffee shop.
To be fair, my degree was in philosophy, so one way to look at it is that I fell off the conveyor belt and- after a few years of scrubbing espresso off my smock- will hop back on and get my Ph.D. and eventually tenure and my own family- albeit a politically progressive family- and then grow old and die painlessly in a hospital bed surrounded by my loved ones. But for now, I’m bucking the convention and not pursuing a high-status job. But really, I’m not bucking any convention at all…
Everyone I work with is a college graduate. And identifies as an artist, intellectual- anything except their current position. There’s the painter who works as a barista, the drummer who works as a barista, the student working as a barista until they go back to school- nobody identifies simply as a barista. Some have been off the conveyor belt for well over a decade. They laugh at my optimism that it gets better and my art is pure and this situation is an intermediary stage that goes with progress. I’m still early in the game where I love my job, the people I work with, and writing this blog. But I don’t plan on doing this for the rest of my life. Something will have to change.
Ultimately, the conveyor belt has built into it an eddy (coffee shops and the like) where you can flounder in existential confusion and defiance, pretending to be proletariat until you a) seek a classier profession OR b) die an untimely death OR c) commit to the eddy and become an obscure outsider artist. All of us “artists” working shitty jobs to support our art will eventually have great jobs and do our art as a hobby. Until that day, you can mark how many times you spin around the purgatorial circle in this fashion: every time you ask some grad students discussing Hegel to please lift their shoes so you can sweep beneath them- that’s one.
My hope is d) figuring a way out. Which really might be staying in- as a saboteur. I don’t know, if I was really part of the proletariat, I’d probably kill to have a spot on the conveyor belt. But if you’re sincerely poor let me tell you there’s something worse than a comfortable life and painless death.