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The North Wind

The North Wind

The North Wind

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The North Wind is an independent student publication serving the Northern Michigan University community. It is partially funded by the Student Activity Fee. The North Wind digital paper is published daily during the fall and winter semesters except on university holidays and during exam weeks. The North Wind Board of Directors is composed of representatives of the student body, faculty, administration and area media.

Students protest against Israel-Hamas war with campus encampment
Students protest against Israel-Hamas war with campus encampment
Dallas Wiertella April 30, 2024

Staff Column: Cliche of liberal arts education unfounded

The past six months of my life can be solely characterized by an awful and repetitive menagerie of the same questions —“What are your plans for after graduation?”; “Have you been applying for jobs?”; and “Oh, an English major, what are you going to do with that?”

It seems these questions come up every time I have a conversation with a stranger, a stranger who invariably has a kid in engineering school or is on the fast track to a career in an otherwise well-paying field. And I won’t go into the conversations I have with my parents’ friends, but suffice it to say they’re cynical of my career choices.

Amanda Monti: Managing Editor
Amanda Monti: Managing Editor

Of course, this is a familiar experience for college kids on the cusp of the fabled ‘real-world,’ a scary realm where success is marked by figures on a paycheck and how your 401k looks.

As one of the many college students on the verge of graduation, I think I may be able to provide some commentary on the matter:

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At the suggestion of a professor in the English department earlier this week, I checked out a speech by author David Foster Wallace, from when he spoke at the Kenyon University 2005 commencement ceremony.

Wallace’s speech, titled “This is Water,” confronted the prototypical perception of a liberal arts college (such as, for the most part, NMU) as a place that helps students “learn how to think.”

Majors such as English, philosophy and history are examples of liberal arts, while the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) embodies the opposite.

Wallace sparingly argues for a more thorough perception of the liberal arts education, and in doing so brings to light the true goal of getting an education — to be “conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience.”

For me, this means learning for the sake of learning — attending classes and getting involved on campus not because it will only make me more qualified (though this is certainly a motivation in my involvement on campus), but because it’s an opportunity for growth, understanding and meaningful experiences.

It means constantly seeking learning opportunities because they will engage my mind, expand my consciousness, and, maybe, if I’m lucky even make me a better person down the road. This means using my education not only as a means to find a job, but as a means to become more of an individual, which, astoundingly, seems to be the most sought-after requirement of employers for when I actually want to work. I’d rather be seen as a useful, sentient human than a mere tool with a nice resume.

In contrast to this idea of learning for the sake of learning is something I saw on campus earlier this week. There are currently little postcards floating around which address the value of attending graduate school (at NMU), with a couple colorful bars (not sure if they constitute as actual bar graphs or just a prettier way to make big numbers look good) showing the statistics that many Northern students have seen before, such as how one can make exceptionally more money with a master’s degree over a bachelor’s degree or how a household’s net worth is more than $100,000 more when there is a master’s degree involved, all of which assumes students even get a job out of graduate school.

This leaves me wondering, in the context of Wallace’s speech and my own personal experience s and desires to actually, thoroughly learn — is the money really all it’s about?

In other words, is the arbitrary assurance that students will make $15,000 more per year, with only a 3.6 percent chance of being unemployed (down from 4.9 percent if your resume has only a bachelor’s degree on it!) really the sole benefit that graduate school has to offer?

Graduate school is an important step, and a decision that many Northern students are considering, likely with great thought being given to the economic benefits and sacrifices of such a commitment.

But while money and comfort — the epitome of modern student goals in higher education, as cited by English professor Gabriel Brahm in his Professor’s Corner column this week — are important to students receiving an education, perhaps more important and yet less discussed is how essential an education is to living in a democratic society, to being a conscious and disciplined citizen in a world of increasing passivity and senselessness.

As Wallace put it in the conclusion of his Kenyon College commencement speech: “Your education is the job of a lifetime.”

Essentially, a life lived well, and mindfully, goes far beyond what you do following graduation. Even if Aunt Meredith or your dad’s friend from work thinks otherwise.

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