There are a lot of criteria by which you can judge someone. At Grinnell, we come to be critically acquainted with a lot of these qualities. They’re not as salient as in other places, but they’re there: race, background, national origin, gender.
Something that we tend to do, although, is disavow the fact that we judge people at all. We acknowledge that stereotypes are wrong and harmful, and to some extent we practice what we preach. But where does this practice leave off? Particularly at Grinnell, that departure point may be one’s major. I myself have had conversations with friends that go something like:
“Most of us are humanities majors. I get why you would major in English or History but … Philosophy? Why?”
“I know. It’s like, what do they do, just sit and think all day?”
Of course, we know that philosophy majors don’t just think all day (or do they?). Even I, an English major, have discussed prominent philosophers, both historic and contemporary, in my English classes. Yet in an informal talk with a friend, discussing other peers who will most likely not become the next Judith Butler, I fall back on the age-old stereotype of philosophy majors as chin-in-palm navel gazers. Admittedly, I know this is a flawed perception.
I know I’m not the only one who shares this view. This perception gets at something deeper: the view that philosophy is not necessarily “productive.” It’s a lot of reading, yeah, but it won’t get you the job offers that, say, an economics major will.
When it comes to other majors, I think the normalized view is a little different. Econ, math, or an econ/math double major (*shudder*) majors are serious about making money, while bio-chem majors are serious about med school. All idealism about the value of critical thinking aside, aren’t some of us a little stressed about choosing a “non-productive” major at Grinnell?
I constantly wonder if my own major, English, has any practical value, any money-making value. Don’t cry for me, English professors, trust that I’ve valued every one of your classes. But what do I do with what I’ve learned? After all, so many of us were told that the story goes: go to high school, get good grades, go to a good college. Then, the name of the university and your grades should be good enough to get you a nice job.
Personally, being a first-generation student, going to college is in and of itself a sort of finish line. I’ve been praised in thrift stores by Latina women who I’ve never even met, telling me that they’re proud of me. So is that my reward? Is that my hometown pension? Sure, it feels great. But, well, when it comes to making money, I’m not so sure.
I’m sure everyone has their moments where they realize that majors don’t necessarily translate exactly into careers. There’s GrinnellLink internship opportunities and alumni resources, but the stress of career finding felt by undergrads is overwhelming. By the last few weeks of second semester, the question seniors hate the most is, “What are your plans for after Grinnell?” (Don’t be that person!)
Speaking of seniors, this summer I got to know a Carleton alumnus personally and romantically. He was well-read, thoughtful, a good listener, an English major and handsome to boot. Score! I thought to myself. After a few more dates, I got to know more about his career which seemed, well, like it hadn’t exactly started yet. Driving home, a phrase came to mind which I remember clear as the day one of my Mellon Fellows said it: “That n*gga ain’t about sh*t!”
I felt bad for passing judgment. So I talked to my mother about how I couldn’t help but feel like I was dating someone who wasn’t exactly doing much. I told her that the Carleton dude even admitted that he didn’t find his current work “fulfilling.”
“Look at me,” my mother, an assisted-living nurse (the workers that come to old people’s homes to cook, clean and bathe them) said. “I wipe old people’s butts for a living. I don’t think about whether it’s fulfilling. It’s a paycheck.” And that’s when the gears started turning.
The point of departure toward dispelling presumptions and moving towards a healthier worldview can surely be Grinnell campus itself. After all, after med school, how many Grinnellians are going to treat disadvantaged people and will need to be sensitive to issues never covered in a textbook, yet proliferated throughout campus? But are we prepared to engage ourselves with such people in a thoughtful and respectful manner?
I want to recalibrate the way I judge people, to confront the ways I inherently surmise their value in my eyes. Our education so often allies us with lofty intellectuals that we lose sight of, for lack of a better word, everyday people. Let’s be real, not everyone we meet is going to be college educated, and I’m not just talking about volunteer trips to Panama. The people that we may eat with, live with and fall in love with may not have gone to college and may be perfectly happy working at a bakery for the rest of their lives. They might not have the “go out into the world and change it” attitude that Grinnell adopts, but their journeys are fulfilling in its own right.
Even us humanities majors, who take the gruff about our majors being “lofty,” usually take it lying down. There’s no reason we should let these attitudes carry on. We need to re-imagine our own capabilities and experiences and those of others like and unlike us if we want to add the empathy necessary to put our liberal arts education to work.