Endeavors, Life

When Life, Education, and Career Don’t Connect

This is for a beautiful woman I had a conversation with one solitary evening. She knows who she is.

Sleter, Francesco; A Representation of the Liberal Arts: Ceiling Design for the State Dining Room at Grimsthorpe Castle; Tate.

We were discussing the frustrations of our lives and how we are both at “that certain age” with college degrees and no place to use them. A lot of people are experiencing this now, at all ages, and not just women. We both have degrees in the liberal arts, and we are both underemployed for completely different reasons. Nevertheless, we both ended up outside of our fields and not a bridge in sight to the marketplace we were shooting for.

Like her, I often wondered whether I should have done the “sensible thing.” You know — entered the medical field as an X-ray technician or something and then gone back to school to learn what I really wanted. Or maybe, had either of us done that, the busyness of life would have ensured we never went back. Or never finished. Or never mastered anything we did. Who knows? Today, some people are even saying that a liberal arts education is a “bad life decision” and society shouldn’t be responsible for our choices, etc., etc. But wait a minute.

Come to think of it, it wasn’t considered a “bad life decision” at the time we each made it. Industry hadn’t finished being funneled overseas, and technology hadn’t yet displaced quite so many jobs. In the meantime, many people now think that college should be free, but what good is government-paid tuition if there are no jobs when you get out? To complicate matters, there are conflicting philosophies about the role of colleges to educate the mind vs. preparing you for a career. And so, I mentioned to this dear person, that we did not make bad life decisions. The world shifted out from under us — that’s what happened.


We both agreed that the medical field is bloated beyond itself, as is government. Both are there for the purpose of making human life tolerable, even as they increasingly make it less worth the living. Yet they control a huge segment of the job market. I suppose it came down to personal principles. Neither of us wanted to hitch our proverbial wagons to these stars. We would have felt trapped, even as we grew dependent on the great salaries.

My hairdresser friend felt regrets (as I have before, too) and suggested that maybe we’d have been better off if we’d given up our principles to make a living. That was hard to argue with in a way. But on the other hand, a proper liberal arts education rounds out an individual and imparts tools by which to examine one’s world. If everyone goes into technical and medical fields, where are the creative liberal arts people with critical thinking skills and innovative ideas? If other people go into fields that ostensibly improve our lives, what about the people who devote themselves to studying things that make life worth the living?

Technical colleges have lately included liberal arts in their curricula with some idea that they are making educational amends for training students in mechanical subjects. But why? Some people really aren’t cut out for liberal arts, and why should they be burdened if they are good with their hands? Conversely, something seems lacking as colleges teach to the latest tools of technology rather than passing on the hard knowledge of established liberal arts disciplines. I need only to look at the current state of news reporting (which I studied) to see what happens when students come out with general degrees in communications (tools heavy) yet lack the objective standards of actual journalism. (I banned a major news network from my home as early as 2002 for unprofessional standards.)

The world needs the liberal arts (just as it needs fine arts and mechanical engineering). It may not pay well any more, but that is because the world has deserted timeless values, not because you/we made “bad choices.” Let us not limit the discussion only to the liberal arts, though. What if you just wanted to be a watchmaker or a jewelry maker? How is that a bad choice? The world needs more people like this, even as it despises paying them anything. Pride in workmanship shouldn’t be a thing of the past.

It’s Not Only About Women

He repairs watches. Better than throwing them away! I keep mine for years and years because I love them so much. I need watch repair people in my life. What about you? What kind of people do you need who are going away? Photo: vaticanus / CC BY 

The issue is more complex than I’ve laid out here. It isn’t just a thing that women can’t get ahead. The fact is that before the women’s movement of the ’60s really pushed this idea to the fore — that all women must get jobs, that all women find fulfillment in their work status, that domestic women’s work was something to be ashamed of — there had always been plenty of men who couldn’t find good, paying work, too. Men often couldn’t get ahead,  weren’t appreciated by their bosses, didn’t have opportunities to succeed, and all that.

The marvelous work that women had traditionally done prior to that time was often relegated to something called Home Economics in college curricula. It covered all manner of things beyond just cooking and sewing. It turned out consumer scientists in many, many fields that we scarcely think about now, from Betty Crocker products to Campbell’s soup, to buyers for department stores and probably much more. The fact is, women made houses into homes, civilized the American west, and were responsible for many of the special civic amenities we enjoy today — library collections, museums, hospitals, charities, just to name a few. Need I say more? Have you not heard of the Bayeux tapestry? What would the world have been had women risen up and said, “We will do no more of these tapestries because nobody pays us?” What a poverty of culture we would have experienced!

Musée de la Tapisserie de Bayeux / Public domain

So what if the women who made this were subjugated to men? Does that make this beautiful work worthless? So what if they didn’t record their own passions in it; their brilliance and their skill is recorded in the workmanship. Would you really sweep the great contributions of women under the rug because they weren’t performed in corporate positions? Apparently some would. After all, who teaches Home Economics anymore? It has disappeared from the college landscape.

While it is true that many fields are scarcely supported monetarily, as they deserve, it does not mean they are worthless or that the persons who have devoted themselves to such work have no value. We need to disabuse people — women, in particular — of this notion that identity is about your job, position or salary. If your passion lies in a non-supported field, your real service cannot be measured according to whether someone pays you, but according to whether it makes a positive difference somewhere. We need new definitions of “success.”

Photo on Visual Hunt

You are a human being, first and foremost. Maybe some people are their job, but most people aren’t. Be who you are. That is your greatest value. Your company is lucky to have you and wise if they also understand how to nurture the person you truly are. It can only abound to their own benefit in the long run.

It is too easy to look inward and curse your lack of remuneration or recognition. When you dwell on this aspect, you come up for air, but you have nothing to speak into other people’s lives but death. Do not sell yourself so short. Remember that what you know and the skills you have, if used wisely, can be tools for speaking life and health into other people’s lives. This, in turn, nourishes your life.

Yes, you may have a practical struggle…but on the other hand, you are the reason other people have something to feed their minds with besides, “What are we going to eat next?” or “What’s the latest movie?” You can still be a ray of light and understanding because you have put your mind to the task. Don’t give up on the best thing you ever were . . . yourself.

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