By B.D. McClay
Mr. Nathan Goldman, the editor of this blog, contacted me, along with some other recent graduates, hoping that we could provide some information on what one does with a liberal education. At the time of writing this post, I have been out of St. John’s for only a year, so my perspective cannot be as expansive, perceptive, or interesting as one might hope.
But I do believe I have something useful to say.
What, then, did I do with my liberal education?
The summer after I graduated from the College, I moved to Washington, D.C., for a little over two months and interned at a quarterly journal I greatly admired. While living there, I had a nervous breakdown. I temporarily gave up on any professional aspirations, moved back to Annapolis, and supported myself working a minimum wage job at a muffin shop. I worked there for several months and did absolutely nothing useful for a long time. I didn’t read much, but I watched a lot of television.
“I had a nervous breakdown” is not really the kind of story St. John’s wants out of its graduates, and it’s definitely not a part of the reassurance package that it provides to prospective students (and their parents). The general gist of those stories is: St. John’s will not ruin you for normal life, will not destroy your chances at a professional career, and will not leave you fit for nothing but talking about books.
These statements are all true, incidentally. There are classmates of mine, people who graduated with me, who have already achieved a very respectable amount of professional success. They have presented papers at conferences and published pieces in the Washington Post, the Atlantic Wire, and VICE. I hope very much that one of those classmates will agree to write about their success, with concrete advice about how to achieve it and an explanation of how their education helped them.
But because there are so many of my classmates with such stories to share, I don’t think it will hurt to share mine. I consider my story a success story, too: but in a different way.
Since most people reading this blog will not know me, I will also add a few things about myself before going on with my story. I was a good student. I rowed for three years, and I missed only one day of practice. I served as the secretary for the Student Committee on Instruction. I ran my own newsletter for a year. I won the yearly essay prize twice, once as a sophomore and once as a senior. I had, I think, a reputation for rigor and for demanding a lot out of myself and others.
None of these achievements is significant of anything deeper about my character, or indeed of anything besides my having achieved them. But I do think they indicate that I am the kind of student the College hopes to hear good news from, and not the kind of student they expect to hear flamed out immediately upon graduating.
And now, on with the story.
I had decided early on in my time at the College that there was something wrong, even disgusting, about pursuing a life purely in the world of the ideas. I believed then and do now that the world of ideas must enrich the world of the living to have any truth in it all. I had a visceral loathing—and still do—for the “sweetness” that an author such as Lucretius finds watching ships sink or armies die while he sits in relative safety. No, I thought, let me be useful. If I can’t find a way to extend my studies to other people, then I ought not study them at all. If I can’t do good for other people, what is the point of doing anything at all?
To that end, I spent about a year and half prior to graduation working steadily toward a particular career in government. For reasons that are not relevant here, the bottom fell out of that future, and I realized I was about to graduate with no clear plan in mind. I had other interests that I thought led in a useful direction, and so I went to work on them. If you want to work at the practical application of an idea in the world, then DC.. is the place most of us go. I was no exception.
The people I met and worked with in D.C. were kind, warm, and brilliant people, and I will always owe them a debt for their patience and the attention they showed to me. They read deeply (and widely), cared about ideas and about people, and went out of their way to include me in conversation and solicit my opinion. They encouraged me to publish something. In many ways the internship was an ideal experience for me.
But I was very unhappy. So unhappy I took advantage of basically none of these opportunities. In fact, I was more than unhappy. I was nervously breaking down.
“Nervous breakdown” is a phrase conveniently void of any clinical meaning, but it does lend itself to lurid images of screaming in the streets. Nothing that dramatic happened to me. In fact, I imagine that most of the people who knew me that summer would be surprised to hear that there was anything wrong with me, because as long as I was working, I was generally OK. My impression is that I was very competent at my work, sometimes even good. It was only when I stopped working—went home, or had a break between projects, or ate lunch—that things became harder for me.
Mostly, doing simple things on a simple level was almost impossible; I have a vague memory of trying to put on my shoes, before finally giving up because it was just too hard. I would often struggle to breathe. I slept constantly. Those are a few details that I have fished out of my memory, and they are about as much as I am willing to share in a public setting under my own name.
I did not entirely understand what was happening to me, but I suspected it had something to do with D.C. So I decided not to look for any kind of job there. I moved back to Annapolis, with no clear idea of what I would be doing once I got there. It was a very stupid decision, I guess, but it was also very wise. At any rate, it took a lot of courage for me to do it, because it meant admitting to a kind of failure; it meant sitting in the dark and licking my wounds while I watched people pass me by. None of that was easy. Nor was it easy when a St. John’s student wandered into the store and asked me, “So is this what you did with your education?”
There was a realization that came along with my breakdown, albeit in bits and pieces: my search for a practical end for myself was really just guilt. Justifying everything in terms of its practical use felt like the penalty I needed to pay in order to pursue my actually quite useless interests. I had decided that unless I produced some measurable good and acquired a certain amount of social power and prestige, I would not only be proving every negative stereotype about liberal arts students true, I would be letting down St. John’s College—and the United States of America—indeed, the entirety of the Western canon.
The dissonance between what I thought I ought to be doing and what I actually thought and did was pretty easy to ignore at St. John’s. The moment I left, however, it hit me forcefully, knocked me flat, and left me completely broken by the experience. Some of this picture I could put together at the time, some of it I put together later; but the decision to give up, at least for a time, on making a career for myself was crucial to understanding any of it at all.
George Orwell said once that there is a great deal of relief in finally going to the dogs, because there the dogs are, and they are not so terrible: you can stand them. I did not “go to the dogs” by any stretch of the imagination. But if you are determined not to be a stereotypical liberal arts major, working in a muffin store after graduation is about the worst thing that can happen to you.
And for that reason, I highly recommend it.
Proponents of liberal education often stress how a liberal education is not limiting, and that it therefore leaves its students ready for any career they desire. They focus on the tools incidentally acquired in such an education: the ability to teach oneself skills, the advantages of a broad knowledge base, and a deepened capacity for empathy.
To my way of thinking, the best thing one can say about these arguments is that they are stupid, and the worst thing one can say about them is that they undermine the very idea of liberal education because they concede that the education itself provides its students with nothing. Until recently, however, I have had little to offer beyond a criticism of that kind of argument. But now I think I have a little something to say.
Here is my case for St. John’s: liberal education is freeing (one might say, liberating), because liberal education gives its students a vision of human life, of excellence, and of wisdom, that is divorced from a job, or prestige, or credentials. Instead of spending four years being shaped into a tool that has one particular use, the student of the liberal arts is instead granted a way of being in the world that does not draw its worth from any kind of external judgment or test. The student will not know whether he has succeeded or failed based on his position relative to others, because that kind of success or failure is not the kind his education has taught him to value.
In this respect, the liberal arts are hard, very hard, harder than almost any other thing we do. But they are infinitely easier than the alternative, where one has always succeeded relative to one man and failed relative to another. In fact, there is no real alternative; but it is only once one has been properly educated that this fact becomes clear. Liberal education is not the only way to achieve freedom. But it is a way, and probably the clearest.
Because here is the story I didn’t tell, the story that didn’t happen to me: the story of a girl who goes to college, succeeds in her studies, finds a job in her field (or—in this economy—doesn’t), and suffers the same breakdown. She has no way of understanding what has happened to her other than that she has spent four years training to be good at only one thing, and she is no good at that. She has no way of understanding her worth as a person apart from her job. She has no way of understanding the worth of her job apart from what others think about it. One day she might wake up and see her situation clearly. But even then, she will still have no way to understand it.
What happens to that girl? I don’t know. Nothing good. Who is she? Well, she isn’t me. But she almost was. She could easily have been. Her response to her deep unhappiness and her inability to function would not have been to trust herself and crawl away. Surrounded by external markers of success, she would have no way to understand her unhappiness at all.
But I did crawl away. I worked at my muffin store, also full of very kind people, to whom I am very grateful. I did not earn a lot of money, but it was enough. I put on my shoes, even when it seemed very hard. I was still in very bad shape. But thinking about what would have happened had I tried to stick it out frankly terrifies me.
When we ask, “What do we do with a liberal education?”, the only satisfactory answer will be a job that carries a certain degree of prestige and intellectual cache. In a previous era, we might have called this category of work the kind suitable for a gentleman; a job that does not involve, for instance, working with one’s hands or working in service.
But I would encourage us all to remember that, at least at St. John’s College, we are only ever really given one figure wholly devoted to liberal education. That figure is Socrates. But Socrates is not a member of the professional intellectual class; indeed, he is their enemy. Nor is Socrates a figure of great prestige; he is rather disreputable. Nor is Socrates wealthy. So what is Socrates’s job? Traditionally, at least, he is a stone mason.
There is nothing inherently wrong, perhaps, in the pursuit of prestige, wealth, or power. But these things ought to be pursued for what they are and given their proper names. They are not in themselves indicative of success or failure; they should never be mixed up in our idea of the worth of a thing or of an occupation or of a person. If one does not desire to be ruined by the world, it is necessary to keep that truth fixed in one’s heart. Indeed, if one does not desire to be ruined by the world, it is probably necessary to be at least a little ruined for it.
In honor of Socrates, I would like to close this account with a story.
Several months later, I returned to D.C. to attend an event for a book I had worked on. The event was very good, and I was happy to reunite with the people from my internship, especially now that I was in a better frame of mind. In the reception afterward, I met a stranger, a woman around my own age. She asked me what I was doing there, and I explained I had worked on the book.
“Oh,” she said, “you work for a publishing house?”
“No,” I said. “I did that work as an intern. Right now I work at a bakery.”
“That’s depressing,” she said.
Well, was it?
I didn’t think so.