by Sarah McLaughlin ’23
As a senior, I felt obligated to attend the Career Expo two weeks ago. I thought it provided a good opportunity to speak with potential employers, and I thought it might quell some of my fears about my future. However, I left with perhaps a greater feeling of uneasiness than I carried into Peterson.
Quite frequently upon introducing myself as a Creative Writing and Political Science major, I’m asked how I’m going to “use” my degree. What can I “do with it?” College has become commoditized. Students see their time here as four years of training to be employees for a company. Think even of the emphasis our parents and other mentors place on “building connections” and creating a social network. Ultimately, they believe it’s for the purpose of getting hired.
While speaking with representatives of banks, investment firms, and recruitment agencies can be valuable for many, it misses the mark for a lot of us. Many peers I spoke with expressed similar frustration that there was “nothing there for them.” In the days that have followed the Career Expo, I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting on what I can actually imagine myself doing with my life. I’ve always wanted to be an author who works for herself; I see that as my end goal. There are many other types of work I also enjoy, work I’d be willing to dedicate years to doing while this goal remains unattainable for the time being. This isn’t a critique of capitalism or a manifesto against the idea of work, having a career, and climbing the socioeconomic ladder. It is, however, a plea for students, parents, and college faculty to think about how we frame our discussions of work.
In her seminal book The Human Condition, Hannah Arendt distinguishes “labor” from “work.” Labor, she says, is the biological processes of our bodies, the things of which we are capable not because we are humans, but because we are animals. Work, on the other hand, is the uniquely human process of creation—creating something that can last outside of ourselves, with an aspiration to permanence. In college, we’re taught how to do work—writing an analytical paper, for example—but I’m just as guilty as anyone of thinking of it as purely labor. We might stay up until 3 a.m. writing an essay only to forget about it in the morning; we don’t always take pride in what we accomplish. I think the first step to thinking about our college experience as more than just “training” is to think of it as work.
Maybe it’s naive and idealistic of me to think that my liberal arts degree is more than a training or a certification that ensures I can get hired, but what has been most important to me during my college career has been what I’ve created, from my poems in creative writing classes to my political science senior thesis. After graduation, I might end up doing menial labor that doesn’t bring me the same type of fulfillment, and maybe that’s a necessary, temporary step towards something greater. But I don’t think it’s unrealistic to rethink what we mean when we talk about “careers.” As a liberal arts college, PC should think about the potential broader scope an event like the Career Expo could have.