When I Grow Up

(Craig Campbell)– When I was a kid I watched my oldest sister go through her first couple years at college very much undecided on a major and career. I reasoned at 10-years old that I had EIGHT full years to figure out exactly what I wanted to do with my life. Eight years is a long time, certainly plenty of time to reason through my options and create a clear checklist of the steps I needed to take to secure it. (Clearly I had my shit together a lot more in 5th grade than I do now.) Back then I could pretty decisively tell someone what I wanted to be when I grew up.

My conception of my eventual job has varied over the years from the very disparate careers of librarian and televised singing chef to senator and CEO – even though I don’t think I realized what senators or CEOs actually do. But I was always so sure of what I wanted. It wasn’t until very recently that I decided that I have no clue what I want to do with my life, which I guess is okay, given the fact that I’m in my first year. More importantly though, it’s okay because of the very specific kind of institution I’m currently attending.

Yesterday on a subway in New York, I chatted with a woman on her way home from a day in Manhattan. She dodged my question when I asked her what she did, then asked me what I was studying. I explained that I’m currently planning on double majoring in English and Math.

She inquired as to whether I planned on being a mathematician with my math degree. Well, no, that’s not the idea… So she pressed me on what I planned to do with a degree in math. I explained that I wanted to even-out my humanities-based education with quantitative studies, so that post-graduation I could work in finance or actuarial sciences. But also that the long-term goal was law school. (I feel like this kind of plan isn’t that out of the ordinary at Amherst.)

But she was absolutely bewildered. How was I planning to work in insurance and get a law degree? If I wanted to go into business why wasn’t I studying business, or why wasn’t I studying pre-law if I want to be a lawyer?

After Amherst, my next two top choices for college were both large universities at which I would directly matriculate into the business school for a somewhat rigidly prescribed business program for the next four years. Maybe I’m just validating my decision to decrease anxiety (probably) but I can’t even begin to imagine a “closed” curriculum, much less a business specific program. What was I thinking?

After further conversation, I learned that the woman I was speaking with was a couple years out of school with a “liberal studies” degree from a SUNY school. She was also unemployed, and had spent the day in the city searching for work. I worried that I had come off as arrogantly entitled, or hopelessly idealistic at the very least. I found that I was operating on the assumption that my bullshit liberal studies degree is going to be somehow better than hers, and that made me embarrassed. But at the same time, I can’t help but believe that it is better than hers. Not because I think myself somehow intrinsically better, but because I go to Amherst College. Or an analogous school: at a New Years party I spoke with a junior at Williams, who explained to me how, next year after he graduates with a History degree, he plans to work as an investment banker on Wall Street. Because we can. So why not?

A few weeks ago, SheBomb’s twitter feed linked to an excellent article that explains what is called “Ivy Retardation” elsewhere. A former Yale professor (and Ivy alum) describes the pitfalls of an elite education, explaining that grade inflation and other benefits we don’t realize we’re receiving keep us in a social stratification higher than equally intelligent students at schools of lesser repute.

I’m a long way off from what we oh-so-affectionately call the “real-world,” so maybe I have no authority at all to write about this subject. But do we deserve this privilege? I don’t think that anyone can argue that a typical Amherst student doesn’t work hard. But do we deserve it more than everyone else? Or, instead, should I just celebrate the fact that I’ve penetrated the highest ranks of America’s very real class system? It’s not a notably bad thing, even if it’s unfair. We don’t have to be ashamed that the spoon in our mouth is silver, it’s just crucial we acknowledge it.