Life After a Liberal Arts Degree

I recently saw the movie Liberal Arts. It didn’t get the best reviews when it was released, so I wasn’t expecting much, but a mere ten minutes in to the movie and I was hooked. Not only was the main character an English major with a liberal arts degree (just like me) but the movie explored the idea that liberal arts majors often struggle to find their place in the world after graduation — something I could identify with. Did I mention the movie is set in Ohio? (Really, can it get any better? Says the former Ohioan.)  

The movie’s main character, played by Josh Radnor, returns to his alma mater to speak at a professor’s retirement ceremony. Striking up a friendship/romance with a girl on campus, he revisits the places where he spent time as a student dreaming about his future. 

“I think one of the things I loved the most about being here,” he tells the girl, “was the feeling that anything was possible.”

Sheltered in an academic atmosphere, liberal art builds a fierce confidence. It instills a “follow your dreams” mentality where anything seems possible. A responsibility to your talents is fully realized. You find your voice. Dreams are built.

Then four years down the line it happens. You graduate.

Here’s where the difficulty lies. Getting a degree has taught you to use your brain. A lot! All the cramming for exams and late night writing aside, there were moments when (dare you admit it) you really enjoyed being in an academic setting. You loved learning. 

Surprisingly the real world is not as enthusiastic. You begin to realize that most people in your day to day life don’t care about analyzing books or discussing philosophy, nor do they want to hear about that novel you’ve been working on or the newest song you’ve composed. In fact, unless you join a book club, writing group, or the like, you’ll probably find the world a pretty lonesome place where kindreds are few and far between.

One of my favorite scenes in Liberal Arts is when the main character, Jesse, visits his university cafeteria for lunch. He starts a conversation with a student sitting across from him and the student asks, “Why did you love it here so much?”
Jesse pauses for a brief moment, smiles, and replies, “This is the only time you get to do this, you know? You get to sit around and read books all day, have really great conversations about ideas. People out in the world, they’re not really doing that. Think about it, you could go up to everyone here and say I’m a poet and no one will punch you in the face.”

Emerging from a university world you can’t help but see the difference in your life before and after. Dreams are re-shaped, aspirations frustrated, talents often forsaken. It’s almost as if you are training for the fight of your life, only to go down in the first round. 

I wish someone had written a book entitled The Consequences of a Liberal Arts Degree (I’m sure Jesse would agree at least a whole chapter could be devoted to poets). Maybe then we could have been better prepared for this transition.

But it’s not all bad. Consequences can be positive after all. Life after a liberal arts degree can be challenging, frustrating, and even lonesome at times, but discovering what you are passionate about makes it worth it in the end. Most importantly, we will always remember that feeling, that anything is possible. Sometimes that is all it takes in the darkest of hours to keep the spark alive.