THE BLOG
09/29/2014 10:48 pm ET Updated Nov 29, 2014

What College Can Do

"I just don't think I'm cut out for a desk job."

These words, spoken to me a couple of weeks ago by a close friend, took me aback for a moment, their novelty catching me off-guard. At an elite institution where many people wear collared shirts to parties, the idea of being anything but pre-professional was a refreshing surprise. It is easy to feel like the road from brand-name college to brand-name corporate career is a logical choice. And then it hit me: I'm not so sure I want a desk job, either.

This summer, the article "Don't Send Your Kid to the Ivy League" by William Deresiewicz was published and widely circulated among my Facebook friends. The piece was essentially aimed directly at us, a photo of a burning Harvard flag preceding the criticisms of us obedient sheep, us supposed followers of a consulting/finance Moses. A slew of critiques proliferated in response, including Joshua Rothman's lovely New Yorker piece that argued that the problem was not merely the higher education system, but rather the pace of modernité. In today's persistently plugged-in world we simply don't have the time to let meaning seep into our lives, he argues, regardless of if and where we go to school.

But amongst the criticism and defense of our academic institutions there was also a general recognition among my peers that, yes, few of us have any idea what we're doing after college and some thus seek a sort of refuge in a career path that will provide a literal receptacle for our self-conscious résumés (I receive emails from the on-campus interview program that notifies me of every consulting information session coming up). A large percentage of my friends have spent the past few years immersed in the social sciences -- including philosophy, art history, English, and anthropology -- and while their minds have certainly been sharpened as a result, their next steps are not a whole lot clearer than when we began college three years ago.

Part of this ambiguity is Harvard's motto of "learning for learning's sake;" we are explicitly not pre-professional, with no academic tracks for pre-business, pre-law, journalism, or education. Part of this is the self-selecting pool of students that flock to elite institutions: driven, good at following rules, and generally with a lot of breadth of experience without necessarily a lot of depth. But a large part of this floundering is a by-product of wanting to make the most of opportunities.

Isn't this the best part of a liberal arts degree: not having to decide? Contrary to Deresiewicz's argument, our uncertainty regarding the future is not because college hasn't taught to think, but rather the opposite. Our willingness to try out a nine-to-five job is not for lack of creativity but rather because college has afforded us time to explore. I have spent the last few summers on three different continents, learning four different languages (much to the confusion of my family). My friends have spent their annual time off leading canoe trips across Canada, learning Arabic in Egypt, travel writing across Italy, working at a publishing house, living with indigenous communities in Perú, leading fishing trips in the Pacific and simply going home to be with family not only because we want to be interesting people and successful job applicants (although we do) but also because we prioritize happiness and experience in our lives. Hence why a desk job may not be the best fit for us all.

Yes, many of my friends qualify as "Super People," appearing to juggle extracurriculars and theses and career choices without so much as breaking a sweat. But they are also super wonderful people, made of a kind of resoluteness, brilliance, and heart that often gives way to great perceptivity. We are all hyper self-aware and sometimes self-promoting (it is no coincidence that Facebook was the brainchild of a Harvard student), but also sensitive to what is important. For some, being able to feed oneself while living in New York is important. For others, being able to breathe clean air and live far away from a dry cleaner is a priority. And for still others, their artistic or academic pursuit will dictate where they live after we leave these ivy-splotched walls.

It is easy to criticize places like Harvard for prescribing to values rooted in the beliefs of old, white men. Yet judging by the number of social movements started by Harvard students that have gone viral in the last year--including I, Too, Am Harvard; emBODY India; and Rugged Grace--I would argue that we are also of a generation that cares about the good we do and values thoughtful critiques of the status quo. Granted, I am certainly biased, but I feel the perpetual busyness that is a symptom of an Ivy League education is also a symptom of having zeal for life.

If we are to press forward on issues like climate change and socioeconomic inequality and institutional violence, we need people who know how to work hard. This is something higher education teaches us. But we also need people who are willing to explore and flounder in a liberal arts education for a little while, thinking critically before snatching up the first career that floats our way. In this muddled pool of post-recession uncertainty, the excuses of our youth and relative anonymity are the best reasons to let our minds wander. And as the saying goes, not all those who wander are lost.