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Baristas with B.A.'s

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By Shannon Frost Greenstein

I made two horrible decisions at the culmination of my high school career that had Coffee Maker.jpglasting repercussions and remind me daily of the choices I should have made the first time around.  My folly?  I chose to go to a Liberal Arts college.  The second bad decision - I chose to major in Philosophy.

I'm aware of the supposed benefits of a Liberal Arts education - well-rounded instruction, broadened minds, a cross-section of the combined knowledge collected thus far by the human species; variety and exposure and learning not what to think, but how to think.  And, yes, to a certain extent, I did benefit from these objectives.  Perhaps most significantly, I learned how to escape from the narrow suburban bubble in which I had been ensconced for the first 18 years of my life.  I can say with complete confidence that my alma mater, Muhlenberg College, fulfilled the mission statement of most Liberal Arts colleges.  However, at the end of the day, a fulfilled mission statement is not success, and is not preparation for a real world that, more often than not, is concerned with what you think and not how you think.

After my first course in philosophy, I became so enamored that I made an irrevocable decision, as unable to be reversed as a short haircut or a tattoo.  I would be a philosopher.  So caught up in this new fountain of information and thought I failed to realize the consequences of such an esoteric major - no marketable job skills.  I'll freely admit that it was pure pretension which led me to this decision.  Something so unique as philosophy, the height of human reasoning, the language and thought processes so lofty as to exclude a vast majority of the collegiate population, appealed to me in a way that business, medicine, or theatre failed to do.  It also didn't hurt that the male-to-female ratio in the philosophy program was about five to one. 

As I've discovered since my graduation, the job prospects for the budding philosopher are not many.  I found that a great deal of my philosophizing - read : all - was pro bono, good exercise for the mental philosophy muscles but not the best way to put food on the table.  Outside of the professorial track and the slim likelihood of admission to a top law school, a Bachelor's in Philosophy doesn't get you very far.  After all, the ability to define the Ubermensch doesn't make you one and it mean a thing when the first student loan payment is due.    Hence, the logical outcome of a liberal arts major, probably experienced by many of my colleagues in the fields of sociology, anthropology, or history:  Baristas, cashiers and administrative assistants. (I am an administrative assistant.)

I would need more digits than provided by my fingers and toes to count the number of liberal arts graduates such as myself who end up - at least temporarily - pulling espresso shots, ringing up merchandise or typing the dictation of the very students who needed our help with their courses in college.  We serve them, cater to them, assist in the menial duties they perceive to be outside of their job descriptions.  We may be able to recite the tribes of New Guinea or the lineage of major players in the Old Testament, but when it comes to balance sheets, we find ourselves sorely lacking.  The point is that we liberal arts children might not be prepared for life outside the ivory tower of academia.  The benefits of a wide range of abstract disciplines might teach us how to think, but is it practical in a world driven by the size of one's wallet and a constant emphasis on upward social mobility? 

I can't very well go back in time and apply to MIT or the pre-med program at an Ivy League.  I'm not sure I would want to, given the opportunity.  But I would surely warn future students seeking a liberal arts education that my path is not exactly the one to follow - that is to say, choosing knowledge for knowledge's sake over a clear direction and a detailed plan about how to get there.  I should hope to see many little philosophers emerge from the halls of liberal institutions - but I should hope to see them with the understanding that the education they received will not automatically prepare them for life free of economic and social worries, as I assumed my education would do, as those who majored in marketing or accounting might experience.  We liberal arts graduates are the artists, and we, by nature, should be starving.  Philosophy, if nothing else, has taught me that much. 

"They have something of which they are proud.  What do they call that which has made them proud?  Education, they call it." - Friedrich Nietzsche, "Thus Spoke Zarathustra"

 

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