The Value of Liberal Arts: Know a Little About a Lot

Calvin echoes my sentiments on school. (Credit: Bill Watterson, Calvin and Hobbes comics)

“So what’s the plan after this?”

Whoever you are and wherever you are: If you’re a breathing, barely surviving student, you’ve been asked this question before. I don’t know about you, but every time I start to think about what I want to do post graduation, my heart begins to palpitate at an unusually fast pace, and somehow I end up under my covers, scrolling through Instagram — even though I swear I don’t remember any of that

It’s tough. Life as a student is confusing and disorienting: You spend half your time wondering what the heck you did with that pencil you had in your hand a minute ago, and the other half worrying about who is going to hire you and pay you real money for your services.

Don’t get me wrong, I love being able to study such a variety of courses, but I often wonder what’s next. Will I be a writer? Maybe I’ll be a teacher. Prime Minister of Djibouti? Art Historian?

I DON’T KNOW! I find myself under my covers and scrolling through Instagram again.

But all this fogginess cleared up a little last month. I had the absolute pleasure of meeting someone who was able to put my mind somewhat at ease: Jayant Murty is the Director of Brand, Creative, Media and Integrated Marketing for Asia Pacific and Japan at Intel Corporations. He has worked for over 20 years in positions of leadership in leading marketing organizations, is passionate about social design, innovation, crowdsourcing, and tech startups, and was nominated to the Digital 25 Producers Guild of America in 2013.

I went in expecting a fantastic interview that would not only provide me with content for a wonderful blog piece but really give me something to chew on. What I didn’t expect was how reassured I would feel in my education at the end of the hour.

“I find your generation interesting,” commented Jayant. “You’re the generation that’s happy with 140 characters on Twitter and with Buzzfeed’s headline. And by doing that, you’ve created that ‘enough’ for yourself. You need to know just enough to be dangerous and just enough to know who to talk to.”

I’m so used to hearing criticism about my generation and our laziness that I almost didn’t register the compliment.

He continued: “Previous generations had a different system of learning. They took 5 years to learn skills and then spent the next forty years of their lives deploying them. But this current generation learns a skill and then uses it. I’ve found that if you find a problem for which you don’t have the skill, you work aggressively to acquire it immediately, and that’s the biggest plus for you.”

“Liberal Arts students, I’ve found, have a way of sourcing the root of the problem: They may not know how to solve it, but they are damn good at identifying it,” he elaborated. “Which is exactly why you can find links between fields that nobody else would have thought to imagine. My nephew studied medicine for five years and then suddenly announced he was going to study mathematics for two more. At first you think, who the hell wants to do that? But now he works in researching and creating artificial organs, which allows him to combine the two in a way that very few people would have thought to combine. The question is, are you interested, and are you willing to find these links?”

This hit me hard. I’ve spent a good chunk of my life being told that I’m ‘distracted’ and ‘not working hard enough’. If there’s anything worse than being told you’re hopelessly unintelligent, it’s being told that you have the potential to be smart but that you’re too lazy to work for it. But that wasn’t my case. It was that specialized subjects were hard for me — I could find links and draw patterns but was told by teachers to just get the damn mathematics sum right, and that wasn’t easy. My parents understood early that I was not a child that was going to be able to specialize; I was a jack of many trades, and they nurtured that better than any teacher could.

Jayant’s next comment brought me back to reality. “One thing that strikes me about your generation is that you know a little about a lot. That’s important because companies are no longer looking to contain all the skills: They are looking to work on a multidisciplinary scale where each company brings a little to the table.”

Very few people stay in a single job or on a career path for their whole lives. With the multitude of courses that a Liberal Arts education pushes you to engage with, you can not only cultivate your interests into real assets, but also make them work for yourself.

“More and more, companies are looking for people to reach out to them with their skill. Offer them a different service, one they don’t have yet! And the best part is that these jobs don’t have to be your regular payback over time jobs; they can even be six month stints. You simply take your skill to Company A and lay a foundation with that skill so that, when you move on, it can be elaborated on by someone else. More importantly, you move to Company B with more confidence in your existing skill and perhaps having picked up a new one in the process! It’s extremely productive.”

I stopped for a second to crick my neck: I realized I had been nodding along so aggressively that my neck needed a second to reboot. Jayant was completely right. He was putting the whole “follow your heart, do what you love” advice into real life, real world examples. It gets better, though.

“Have you ever seen the Netflix documentary 13th?”

Damn, I had to shake my head “no”. I had come this far believing that there was no Netflix show I had left unwatched, but apparently I was wrong.

13th is a haunting documentary that explores the criminalization of African-Americans in United States prison systems. A young student once mentioned to me that they were pursuing African-American Studies — a degree quite often grouped with Gender Studies and called useless — to research and study the way that racial bias against blacks is perpetuated in prisons in the United States. I thought to myself, this kid has made a connection that millions of people would have just ignored. He’s sticking with what he loves and is finding a way to make that work for himself.”

Studying a subject in isolation is different than studying one passionately along with other topics. African-American Studies has only been around for fifty odd years, and the degree is unfortunately on the receiving end of a lot of flack for being ‘not worth’ the time. However, it amazed me that someone had persevered through all the criticism and found a way to make his love for this niche subject applicable in the real world.

“Which is why I say to you, Tanya, do what you love. It’s okay to change your mind — in fact, it’s good. But do something.

Yes, it’s easier to make relaxed decisions when you have an economic cushion to fall back on, but the two don’t have to be mutually exclusive. When you have the backing of a Liberal Arts education, you are benefitted with the multiple talents that it has forced into you. Make use of it! You don’t have to take the conventional way out. Find what you love and make it work for yourself!”

I don’t know why it’s taken me so long to admit that maybe I’m not meant to be making big bucks. Maybe I’ll be stuck working at a research level position for a social organization deep in the rural pits of India, but that’s okay. Having had an education where I’ve been forced to study a diverse array of subjects, I am truly content with knowing a little about a lot. The longer I talked with Jayant, the more comfortable I felt with my choices. Feeling trapped in your area of study is more than natural, especially when you’re studying something out of the norm. But it’s okay to create your own intersection and work through it. Your passion doesn’t have to get sidelined:  You, as a Liberal Arts student, have the resources and the ability to make it practical! That was a very powerful idea to me.

We have to begin teaching ourselves to connect the dots. I like to believe that I’ve always known and believed in the power of a Liberal Arts education, but sometimes you need a boot to the backside to get your brain working for answers, finding connections and understanding the power of your education.

We still live in a world where many jobs are like one-way streets. Right now, nobody is teaching us how to connect the dots (of our education?), and I believe that it’s  a disservice to the Liberal Arts. Very few people know what to do after college simply because very few people are willing to help you after college! Let’s teach ourselves how to do it.

Our power is knowing a little about a lot. Your average Liberal Arts student will find patterns where someone else might only see a wall, and this is not a skill to leave untrained.

Walking out of that meeting, I felt heartened. I was no longer backed up in a corner, panicking at the thought of my future. Sometimes we tend to stress ourselves out to the point of no return, and that often means binge eating seven packets of chips and breathing into several paper bags… but part of being a student is discovering that that’s really not what being a student is about.

In my 2 years as a college student, I can safely say that I think being a student is one of the most perplexing experiences you’ll ever have to endure. Yes, you spend a lot of time wondering if you should just sleep in and skip class, but you also spend a lot of time thinking about life and, as much as we love to romanticise it, we’re not going to end up penniless and on the street. We have the world in our hands so we’re going to use what we have and make it powerful.

We’ve got this.


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