As someone who teaches courses within the arts and sciences, specifically in the Department of Religious Studies, I often hear students say some variation of the following: “I love my courses in religious studies (insert any other arts and humanities field here), but I need to take a major that will get me a job after college.”
The student then proceeds to tell me what field she/he/they are choosing to appease this sense of responsibility to her/his/their future self. The field may be in a professional school, but it is just as likely to be in a department within arts and sciences that the student has deemed “practical.”
To this reasoning, I call “BS.” Here’s why:
1) Undergraduate education is about learning how to read, write and think carefully and critically. You’ve heard that before, but I don’t think we can stress it enough. Learning these skills takes practice, and you can, arguably, practice these in any field of study. In fact, one of the great things about a liberal arts education is that you get to practice these skills in a variety of fields of study, even some you may not be crazy about.
2) It’s hard to see the future. I hate adopting the role of the “older-person-telling-you-how-things-were-back-in-my-day,” but I’m going to do it anyway. When I graduated from college in 1992 — with a philosophy degree, BTW — many of the jobs people are doing today simply didn’t exist. App developer? Didn’t exist. Social media manager? Nope.
Not all of the fields that have emerged over the past 25 years have to do with technology either. Interfaith chaplaincy wasn’t really a thing, nor were careers related to supporting sustainability and responding to increasing diversity in academia and the workplace.
Simply put, what seems practical today might not be so practical in 10, 15 or 20 years. It’s important to be educated in a way that makes you intellectually nimble so you can change with the times.
3) It is more than likely that you will not be in the same job for your entire life. Heads up, you won’t even be the same person in 10 years. Again, critical reading, writing and thinking skills are transferable across careers. These skills make it easier for you to adapt to new opportunities and paths.
Focusing primarily on skills associated with a particular profession is fine, if you are passionate about that field. But if you’re not passionate about the field and are choosing it just to be practical, you’re not doing yourself any favors. If you don’t love the profession, you’re not likely to stay with it over the long haul.
4) Students across the university are on a path to meaningful employment after graduation. Finding a job after graduation is not limited to those in professional schools. According to a “Cap and Gown” study conducted by Elon University last year, 69 percent of students from the arts and sciences were employed, and 24 percent were in graduate or professional school nine months after graduation.
Yes, the employment numbers were higher for students nine months out of the schools of business and communications (88 percent each), but their graduate and professional school numbers were considerably lower than in arts and sciences (5 percent for business school graduates and 9 percent for communications).
Thus, if someone suggests that majoring in arts and sciences isn’t practical, tell them that the data doesn’t support it. While employment rates may be lower nine months out, that’s because many of the arts and sciences students who aren’t employed are in graduate or professional school, going on to be lawyers, doctors, social workers, educators or working on the advanced degrees necessary for any number of life paths.
I recommend that students study what they love. Study the things that interest you and energize you. It might take some time to figure out what those things are, but this is your time for doing just that. The options are amazingly endless. Studying what you love will make you want to study more, think more, do more, investigate more, ask more. These are practices that will make you successful in college and eventually successful in life.
Note that I didn’t suggest studying what you find easy. Often, the things we love are things that challenge us to think in a new ways, push us to give up old ways of thinking and sometimes frustrate us. But these are things that are required for growth, development and flourishing.
And I didn’t say don’t major in marketing, strategic communications or any other number of professional school majors. If you love it, you should be there. But if your passion is in another field, you’re selling yourself short by staying there. Start doing what you love now. It may be the most practical move you can make for the future.
Lynn Huber is Associate Professor of Religious Studies and Chair of the Department of Religious Studies at Elon University.