”What are you going to do with a major in _______?”
For liberal arts majors, the question is as inevitable as it is dreaded, just like the snarky answers that are bound to follow – usually something along the lines of, “Well, you might be able to make manager at Quizno’s,” as someone told a new English graduate in a LiveJournal discussion. It’s easy to take the cynical way out, especially if you’re unhappy with what you’ve done – or, more likely, not done – with your own work life. Just because a degree in English or philosophy doesn’t prepare you for a specific job, that doesn’t mean that it prepares you for nothing.
When trying to choose a career, liberal arts majors have a harder time of it than people who major in, say, engineering or computer programming. But a life worth having is worth putting some work into, and the kind of thinking that you have to do to figure out what career will work for you requires the kind of introspection that probably drew you to the humanities to begin with.
Your liberal arts major is relevant not because employers are clamoring for a Dickens disciple or a head full of Heidegger, but because it gives you a way to look at your skills and interests. You have a lot of questions to ask yourself. For example, if you’re an English major, you’ll want to ask yourself questions such as, What did I like about English? What didn’t I like about English? What made me good or bad at it? Am I organized? Am I persuasive? Am I good with people? Am I good with paperwork? Do I have a good memory? Am I good at interpreting and understanding emotions?
In other disciplines, some of the questions will be the same, and others different. Has studying history given you an edge in big-picture thinking and understanding the causes of events? Has dissecting arcane philosophical arguments honed your analytical skills to the point where you can read through a contract and spot the loophole that could cost – or save – a company a fortune?
Maybe an employer will never ask you whether you prefer Eliot or Pound, but the cognitive skills that you use and develop in the humanities are the same cognitive skills that can carry you through other careers. Someone once told me that a professor told him that the best computer programmers were people who had studied classics, because the intensive case and tense systems of Greek and Latin were perfect preparation for the kind of logical structures that computer programming depends on.
In his book High-Tech Careers for Low-Tech People, William A. Schaffer makes the case that while programming languages and technological platforms come and go, communication skills and big-picture thinking grow ever more important. Among many others from high-tech businesses, Schaffer quotes Sun Microsystems President Scott McNealy, who says, “You’ve got to have an intellectual curiosity. You’ve got to have a desire to make more than just money. You’ve got to want to improve the standard of living, the tools that we have, because that’s what technology does.” Intellectual curiosity and the feeling that making a life is more than just making a living are among the factors that drove some of us into the liberal arts. And never forget that humanity’s tools include not only digital devices and metal machines, but also the cognitive tools that allow us to make sense of the world and to share knowledge in ways denied to all other animals.
English Professor Mark Turner explores this idea in his books The Literary Mind and Reading Minds: The Study of English in the Age of Cognitive Science. He argues that the mental processes we use in studying literature – metaphor, narrative, etc. – are not something special that is added to our life, but are deeply tied into the very processes of practical thought and everyday life. Mark Turner studied metaphors in collaboration with philosophy Professor George Lakoff, who in Don’t Think of an Elephant! demonstrates how manipulation of language and metaphor have formed the basis for the Republican Party’s recent domination of U.S. political and cultural life.
You may feel that you don’t have a clue about how to turn your "impractical" education into a promising career. You also felt you didn’t have a clue the last time you put off writing a paper until the night before it was due. Then you took a deep breath, glanced over the material one more time, and pulled an A (or at least a B) paper out of your butt – not because the gods took pity on you, but because your years of reading and thinking literally in-formed you, forming internal structures of knowledge and problem-solving that you could apply to the Franco-Prussian War or Paradise Lost. Now take these analytical and expressive capacities and apply them to the question of what you’re going to do when you finish school. Just because you’re getting a B.A., that doesn’t mean you can’t benefit from the power of B.S.