David Altshuler, M.S.
(305) 978-8917 | [email protected]

Not Beowulf! Heathcliff!

Everyone in our running group is infinitely supportive. Of running. “When is your next event?” “How can I help you train?” But beyond athletics, we tend to be snarky by nature and brutal in practice. The phrase “junior high” springs to mind. Also, “mean girls” and “off our meds.” One of my running buddies is particularly adept at cutting remarks. I guess it’s how we communicate affection without getting all mushy about it.
Lawrence Olivier, Heathcliff.
“Wuthering Heights,” 1939
Steve is especially brutal about my choice of English as an undergraduate major. “Who was that guy who tore his eyes out after it turned out he married his mother? That was Beowulf, right? Or was it Heathcliff?” Another runner comes to my defense, pointing out that I also have a degree in math. “Ooh, I bet that’s useful,” Steve intones. “Are we running pi miles today?” Ouch.
Not the Heathcliff we were talking about at all
As a college admissions advisor, I have to reflect: what is the relationship between what we study and what we do? Should liberal arts students take heed and immediately switch majors to accounting? Should we attend the following oft-repeated joke? What did the sociology major say to the business major?” “Do you want fries with that?”
Even worse is the derisive response to acknowledgments of a passion for art history, physics, philosophy, or any subject without a direct route to instantaneous employment. “What are you going to do with that, teach?” As if there’s anything wrong with teaching–other than perhaps the starting salary. Everybody remembers the inspiring teachers who change lives. And there’s lots to do with those degrees besides teach.
So I conducted an informal poll. I asked the runners what they studied as undergraduates, what they did for a living, and if they felt there was a relationship between the two. Before I share the results, a caveat. The outcome of my informal survey should not be extrapolated to the general population. As Pauline Kael sort of said in 1972, “I don’t see how Nixon won. All my friends voted for McGovern.” Similarly, my “sample” of middle-aged runners is not representative of the broader population. Indeed, the only folks included in the investigation are the ones slow enough to be at the back of the pack with me. My non-scientific selection bias disclosed, here are the results:
Robin runs a bank, a rather large bank now that you mention it. Robin lends money to absurdly wealthy people. Robin has a ton of employees all of whom respect their boss. Robin’s undergraduate major? Spanish literature.
Alex writes screen plays for a living, including some films you’ve doubtless heard of. Absurdly successful, Alex has sold scripts to Stephen Spielberg. For real. Undergraduate major? Political science.
Lou is a financial advisor in private practice. Lou is an ethical person who helps people make good plans for the future. Lou studied psychology in college.
What’s the take away? What you study is not who you are. What you study is not who you’ll be. In a perfect world what you study is what you love or what you’re good at or what you’d like to know more about.
In fairness, I have to point out that one of our running buddies, Dale, studied engineering as an undergrad and is now an engineer by profession. But Dale was always an engineer, played with Legos in utero, built radios out of sticks and mud in pre-school. It’s just that not everyone has Dale’s ability or motivation. Do I have to remind my gentle readers that some people just don’t have the horses or the whip to be an engineer?
I know that all the best-paying careers involve some form or engineering. Everybody who can use Google knows that all kinds of engineers make all kinds of money. But when you tell your kids to study engineering rather than sociology, aren’t you implying that your kids are capable of studying engineering? Aren’t you communicating that they are not okay as they are? Wouldn’t you be better off to be like the members of my running group, snarky on the outside but accepting and supportive in every meaningful way?
Maybe we’ll even find a gentle way to teach Steve the difference between Heathcliff, Beowulf, and Oedipus.


4 thoughts on “Not Beowulf! Heathcliff!

  1. Ellen

    As the holder of an undergraduate degree in accounting (and a law degree), I am one of those “employable” people. But, as I move into the next phase of my life (empty nest in two weeks as we send #2 off to college) I am now trying to see how I can parlay those skills into something more meaningful than cranking out tax returns.

    Several of my friends in recruiting and HR have said what you point out – what you majored in is not as important as what you’ve done with it. Critical thinking and writing are vital skills that you can get with many different majors.

    And yes, one of my kids is planning on engineering as a major (she loves science and math), but the other one is probably going to major in child psych and education – which suits her perfectly!

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