Columns

Asker ’17: Career-bound

By
Opinions Columnist
Thursday, October 8, 2015

As both a philosophy and economics concentrator, I walk the line between curiosity on the one hand and practicality on the other. Through the former, I chase my passion and try to make the most of my liberal arts education; Through the latter, I will most likely seek employment. Of course, there are people who dedicate themselves to economics because they love it: for them, theorizing, researching and solving the world’s problems is euphoric. I, too, appreciate this particular kind of economics, but it’s not the sort that concerns me here.

I want to talk about the kind that B-schools almost exclusively teach, the kind that will get you a lot of money if you study it, perhaps even get you to Wall Street — in short, the kind you feel compelled to take. In this sphere, it’s not so much love of the game that characterizes students, but rather a “no pain, no gain” attitude, a discipline that allows them to delay gratification now to get a big payout later in life. Indeed, a theoretical economist might marvel at the willpower of these students, who, in foregoing pleasure now, overcome the natural tendency to “temporally discount” future rewards.

One thing students preparing for the business world forego, myself included, is taking courses that actually interest them. Instead, they take more tedious ones to make themselves more employable. So we lose out on the pleasure that comes with quenching our curiosity. But we also miss out on a full liberal arts education, and consequently on a chance to become more refined, creative and open-minded people. To some extent, then, we sacrifice authenticity: we’re less true to ourselves and our humanness than we could be, shelving our unique interests and benching the potentials that would make us flourish.

Nonetheless, self-denial now for a period of comfort in the future is inevitable given the current economy. College students are fortunate to even be in a position to get a degree so they can signal to the business world their relative worth. But we face looming loan debt upon graduating, as well as the responsibility of financially supporting ourselves and, sometimes, our immediate family. Throw into the mix that, today, the American Dream is more of a quaint ideal than an achievable reality, and it’s easy to understand why we need to land a good job after college; Otherwise, a life of financial uncertainty awaits.

This is unfortunate for all the humanities generally, which suffer every time a potential inductee is instead conscripted by the business world. Indeed, the humanities can’t fully thrive without maximizing the number of people who partake in them so that we can answer questions about who we are, who we want to be and how to get there. The more participation, the greater the concentration of ideas and dialogue from which progress in the realms of art and morality can be made.

As far as being disfavored by today’s economic climate, the humanities aren’t alone. Mathematics, biology, chemistry, physics, geology, etc., insofar as knowledge in these fields is pursued out of intellectual curiosity rather than business interest, are also neglected and devalued. As Scott Samuelson, who teaches philosophy at Kirkwood Community College, put it in an Atlantic column last year, “These form half of the so-called STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) subjects, but if the goal of an education is simply economic advancement and technological power, those disciplines, just like the humanities, will be — and to some degree already are — subordinated to future employment and technological progress.”

In his essay “Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren,” John Maynard Keynes expressed optimism that within a few generations of his lifetime, the world would become so technologically advanced that the “economic problem” would be solved. Everyone would be able to “devote their energies to non-economic purposes,” i.e., they wouldn’t have to work. This is really strange, of course, considering that all of human history has been spent struggling for subsistence. “For the first time since his creation man will be faced with his real, his permanent problem — how to use his freedom from pressing economic cares, how to occupy the leisure, which science and compound interest will have won for him, to live wisely and agreeably and well.” We would be able to pursue things like art and philosophy and spend more time with the people we love. Moreover, we could finally jettison “the pseudo-moral principles which have hag-ridden us for two hundred years, by which we have exalted some of the most distasteful of human qualities into the position of the highest virtues,” including greed, stinginess and never stopping to smell the roses, because they were necessary for productivity’s sake.

But I worry that our “needs” keep changing, that what constitutes “enough” is ever-shifting. Even today, it seems like we allow businesses to drive demand for unnecessary things as though we’re bottomless pinatas. If we allow this to continue past a certain point, we’ll never reach a state of contentment in which people can be vocationally free. So we need to tread carefully, stamping out meretriciousness as it comes with technological advancement and commercialism. At a certain stage, productivity may actually be counterproductive, opposing what’s actually good for us.

So I guess there’s some solace to the angst I feel entering an unideal world. Getting a job might be a necessary evil now, but we can have hope that one day, posterity won’t be career-bound like us, provided we keep our priorities straight, our eyes on the real prize.

Nicholas Asker ’17 can be reached at nicholas_asker@brown.edu.

  • Hrumph

    This is such BS. You don’t NEED to go into finance to become employed. You’re a student at Brown–most likely your family can either pay your entire tuition no problem, or you’re getting a huge amount of financial aid. If you’re one of the rare people who doesn’t fit into one of those two categories at this school, then you still will probably do OK–the student loan default rate for students at selective four year universities (not even Ivy league universities) is incredibly low, regardless of major. As a Brown student, you don’t need to take corporate finance over Turkish history in order to gain employment. Just come out and say it–you want that 6+ figure salary and the “prestige” that goes along with getting a job at GS or wherever else you want to work. Which is fine–just don’t go around telling people that it’s absolutely necessary to take all those classes you don’t like and that you wish you could take more liberal arts classes. You were never as committed to getting a liberal arts education as you want to believe you are.

  • Joe Smith

    Maybe it’s not so big an issue for Brown alum. According to the Obama Administration’s new College Scorecard, 24% of Brown graduates at the ten year mark earned less salary than those with only high school diplomas..and coming from the White House, it must be accurate. So perhaps one-quarter of Brown alumni are already pursuing “non-economic” driven pursuits.