I Don’t Care If My Students Get Jobs

I confess: I’m exaggerating in my title. As a professor at a small liberal arts college, of course I care—at least in a certain sense—if my students get jobs. I don’t wish unemployment upon them, and I hope they succeed in life. Someone—they themselves, their parents, their relatives, alumni who donate to a scholarship fund—is paying a lot of money so that they can get a college education, and it’s not unreasonable for them to want (as we say these days) some return on investment. Professors are reminded of this constantly: by administrators, by admission staff, by parents, by cultural polemics against navel-gazing programs of study and meaningless degrees. I get all of that. Still, whenever I am asked what my students can do with their degree, I am always sorely tempted to answer, “I don’t care if my students get jobs.”

No doubt my employers would be displeased if I succumbed to temptation and announced my indifference to a group of prospective students and their parents. Like many such colleges these days, we could use more students. Like many such colleges, we are trying desperately to discover the best strategies for attracting them. Like many such colleges, we often seem to think that the way to do this is to explain more clearly how our programs of study will prepare them for specific careers. So it is not surprising that I often find myself confronting the question: What can you do with a degree in political science, or history, or philosophy, or a related field?

Not surprising, but nevertheless a little silly. Let’s face it: If I were so good at thinking up clever and interesting things to do with a liberal arts degree, I would be doing something that paid a lot better than teaching at a small Christian college. I’m the last person you should ask what jobs your degree prepares you for. (This much, I admit, I have occasionally said to prospective students and their parents.) Teaching has its own rewards, to be sure. But you’re a lot more likely to wax eloquent about the privilege of shaping the minds, hearts, and souls of our youth when you aren’t grading their papers.

It isn’t just that I’m not terribly creative at imagining a diverse palette of exciting career options. I’m also not very interested in it. Like many of my colleagues, I’m a professor more or less because I like reading books, and being a professor lets me spend a fair amount of time doing that. (Though less than one might suppose—there are those piles of papers to grade, to say nothing of advising sessions, committee meetings, and the like.) If I were really that interested in thinking about all of the other things I could be doing, then I’d probably be doing one of them. I’m interested in plenty of things: figuring out what exactly Aristotle means in saying that each “constitution” or “regime” has its own vision of justice; whether Aeneas ultimately gives in to the forces of rage and madness that he has been holding at bay throughout Vergil’s epic; how Luther’s kingdom of God and kingdom of man should or shouldn’t interact with each other; or how the dying King Lear can help us understand just what Edmund Burke would later mean in speaking of the “moral imagination.” But different career options? Not so much.

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