Thinking Outside the Education Box

Jedediah Bila

4/15/2013 12:01:00 AM - Jedediah Bila

I recently stumbled upon a Facebook post Sarah Palin had written while reflecting upon her daughter Willow's graduation from an academy that specializes in hair and skin. In it, she said the following:

"Young people should not be pressured into assuming that a college degree is the only path to employment today. It’s not. Some college degrees obviously lead to clear professions, like those in the medical and engineering fields, but that’s not the case with many of the liberal arts degrees young people today gravitate toward either because they aren’t sure what they want to do after college or because they’ve been led to believe that college life is a sort of rite of passage for any career. That might have been the case once, but the salary and career opportunities a liberal arts education alone can get you have been dramatically limited these days. It’s so sad to see young people holding expensive college diplomas that come with no practical job opportunities."

It struck me immediately, not only as a former undergraduate and graduate student who holds a B.A. and M.A. in Spanish literature, but also as a former teacher, student adviser, and academic dean. Before I proceed, would you mind taking a walk down memory lane with me?

I remember my first college meeting with my adviser like it was yesterday. I was seventeen, just about ready to start figuring myself out, and hoping to make up a semester schedule that would interest me and let me sleep until nine every morning. I also remember one of the first questions my adviser tossed my way: "So, what do you want to do with your life?"

What do I want to do with my life? I thought. I don't even know what I want to do for lunch.

The truth was that I had absolutely no idea. And the reason for that was that I hadn't taken the time to really think about it. I hadn't brainstormed my likes and dislikes. I hadn't chosen a school based on my interests. I hadn't researched relevant internship opportunities.

I hadn't done any of those things. Instead, I had listened to the many teachers, administrators, and guidance counselors along the way who had told me that I didn't need to figure any of that out just yet. They told me that I needn't worry because a solid liberal-arts degree was the key to success; it would make me a well-rounded, ideal candidate for just about any job. In fact, on the occasions that a particular trade did interest me--skin care, marriage counseling, writing greeting cards--I was told not to get "too narrow" in my thinking too early. The broader, the better, seemed to be the way to go. (Or so they told me.)

So, I listened. I spent my college years studying what I enjoyed semester to semester--a little Spanish literature here, a little psychology there, a little marketing in between. Before I could blink, I was building enough credits for a Spanish major, so I went with it. After all, it was pretty cool to be able to read books in two languages. At some point, I had enough credits for a Business minor, so I got one. I even applied to graduate schools for full fellowships in Spanish, initially because I wanted to see if I could actually snatch one.

It was all part of a journey. The problem was that I wasn't thinking about where I wanted that journey to wind up. The truth was that I didn't want a career in the conventional business world. I didn't even want a career where I'd be speaking two languages; learning Spanish was far too romantic for me to ruin it with practical application.

So, what happened?

I graduated college valedictorian, got an M.A. from Columbia University in Spanish literature at the age of twenty-two, and still couldn't answer the question "What do you want to do with your life?" I also had no idea how my degrees would--if ever--translate into a salary, a career, a forward vision. And, to be honest, I didn't even know if I wanted them to.

Looking back, part of the problem was that my high-school curriculum didn't allow for much personal exploration. I couldn't take Ceramics or Photography or Clothing Design because those classes didn't exist. Instead, the program was academically rigorous and aimed to create tough intellectuals. I'm not knocking rigorous academics, but what the program forgot was the importance of encouraging kids to discover who they were and what they loved. Years later, as a teacher, adviser, and dean, I never forgot that. It made all the difference in the way I looked at high school curriculums and the suggestions I made.

Now don't get me wrong, I'm grateful for the college journey I took. Those four years taught me more about love, friendship, and myself than I could convey. But if I had to do things again, I'd be less afraid to embrace what I loved, even if it meant narrowing my vision. I'd be less concerned with the conventionality of a well-rounded, four-year degree and more concerned with discovering my passion and mapping out what it would look like in real life.

So, I commend Sarah Palin for addressing this very important issue and for her willingness to think outside the box. In the world of education, I wish more people would. And I commend Willow for taking the time to discover her interest in hair and skin, enrolling in a specialized school, and combining passion with practicality to hopefully yield success.

My advice to young people everywhere: Choose schools that encourage self-discovery early on. Don't be afraid to buck convention. And when someone asks you what you want to do with the rest of your life, take the time to really think about it.