On carpentry and college

Finding reward - and real learning - in the ivory tower
By NINA MACLAUGHLIN  |  October 20, 2011


I studied hard in college because I was unhappy. Long hours logged at my dorm room desk, in the vaulted hush of the library, memorizing Latin vocab words, flipping through art history flash cards, reading Djuna Barnes and Thucydides, writing and writing, made a firm shield against lows and loneliness. I put my attention to the work to keep it from the dark, bad feelings. There are worse antidotes for sadness.

I went to the University of Pennsylvania and majored in English and classical studies. It was not the right school for me. The Wharton School, Penn's premier business program, meant that 18-year-old kids were going to their management classes in suits, strutting down Locust Walk with cellphones to their ears. This offended me. I had a terrible attitude. (This was the late '90s; only future investment bankers had cellphones at age 18.) Fraternities and sororities dominated the social culture, loathsome both. Philadelphia chewed its way into my heart, but it took a while, and I spent all of my junior year abroad in Dublin.

I got a terrific education. A degree in English and classics qualifies one for nothing and everything. Not everything. Not a career as an endocrinologist. Not a job designing knee-replacement hardware. But there will always be room for people who can think critically and express themselves clearly. Hard part is finding the room, and understanding that the room might be behind a door you never expected you'd be knocking on.

I spent seven years working at the Boston Phoenix. Journalism makes some sense when you've spent four years in college reading and writing. Age 30, I quit the Phoenix and ended up with a job as an apprentice to a carpenter. Sawing, chiseling, hammering, nail-gunning, tiling, sanding, slotting, framing, hauling, measuring, and sweeping are less obvious outcomes of an undergraduate career in the liberal arts. College, in strange and unexpected ways, prepared me for this sort of work. And in others, did not prepare me at all.

A liberal-arts education, the way I understand it, gives the student a rounded foundation of intellectual pursuit. You get your language, your literature, your history, your philosophy, your science, and your math. (A rounded foundation, of course, also means you can slip off it.) Exercising different regions of your brain, having a loose sense of the progression of cultural history, understanding basics of big theories and big events, being able to piece together the way one movement or crisis or revolution begat another, and, maybe the neatest part, making links between disciplines, when your mind builds lit-up bridges between T.S. Eliot and air raids and ancient Greek  these are the touchstones of this sort of schooling. A little of this, a little of that, giving you a sense of what's happened, preparing you to make sense of what's to come.

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