Beggar at Ghazi Chowk


The curse of liberal arts

29 Mar 2012

Published in the Daily Princetonian on 29 March 2012.

They say college is a time to find yourself. I feel like I’ve done the exact opposite. Almost three years in at Princeton, and I seem to have slowly lost strands of what I once thought defined me. Everything I believe has been laid open by the challenges, ideas and thoughts of this great institution.

Not long after I got here I realized that I would have to question everything I believed myself to be, everything I thought I had concluded to be true. Slowly but surely all that we stand for becomes open to question. Our goals, our belief in ourselves, others, the education system, the economy, even our belief in religion and God — everything is challenged.

Perhaps that is the beauty of being around some of the best minds in the world and their eager pupils: the vulnerability of asking questions about yourself and trying to find answers and accepting that many times the answer is simply, “I don’t know.”

That’s the point, isn’t it? To let go of what we came here with and slowly begin to answer the questions that our parents, our teachers and our communities once answered for us. The first step in letting yourself go, leaving your mind bare and impressionable, is to accept that we don’t have answers to everything. It is from there that we truly begin to look.

In that process we begin to lose our old selves, losing the clarity that we so doggedly believed we had. I was talking to a friend when we were abroad last year, and both of us realized that in some ways we now had more connections with this campus than we did with our homes. Old friends and old memories become exactly that: old. We work and try to search for the new: the paths we might take and the turns that might present themselves.

In a fearfully real sense, our identities have a whole new context. Suddenly I’m studying things that I never thought I’d study and working on projects I had never envisioned. Why? I’m not quite sure. Where will they lead me? Not a clue. In the grand image of Steve Jobs’ famous Stanford address, I’m trying to find what I love to do. I have ideas, but I’m not sure, so I plan to continue looking. I expect to come to conclusions, rethink them and change my mind repeatedly until I’m content.

The freedom of being able to doubt and rethink everything myself is often what I relish most about my time here. It seems right, almost, to not settle, but to keep moving and looking for better answers. But the ‘real’ world beyond Fitz-Randolph seems to think otherwise, and it bugs me.

I stroll on to the job fair and try to get a couple of interviews. “Why are you studying what you’re studying?” they’d ask. Honestly, I really don’t know. But as the gods of technical interviews have taught me, “I don’t know” seems to be the dreaded answer. I don’t want to tell them I have no idea what I’m doing. But I don’t. But I need to show I can think well. But that doesn’t imply I have answers, it should only mean that I ask the right questions. Right?

To be fair, I’m not as stumped as I seem, but I wish everything were clearer. I wish it were acceptable that I do not consider myself smart enough to have the correct answers and that I might, faced with something that is obviously an improvement over what I doing, change my mind.

I hope to learn — by getting as many different experiences as possible — to grow as a person and to contribute to whatever group I am a part of. Sometimes this just seems impossible. At every stage of this process, there are always people who look better prepared. They came to a decision about what they wanted to do and stuck to it.

And that’s great. Quite frankly, I understand why companies or graduate schools may choose someone with a sense of direction as opposed to someone without one. But in the spirit of a liberal arts education, what of those who change their minds? Is that the death sentence of a well-defined path to a great career?

One of my closest friends decided to change majors in the middle of his fourth semester here. It was a great decision, but it was much harder than, in all fairness, it seems like it should have been. It is almost as if choices like these are between giving up all you have worked for and the chance to find something new.

Should it be that hard? Should we have to decide that we will in all likelihood never want to return to what we originally thought was right for us just to see if something else makes more sense? The freedom to question yourself that this great institution presents, and the demand of direction at so many stages after, just does not add up.