My education grows as my questions do

Several months after I'd graduated from a liberal arts college, I realized something: I had no marketable skills.

This struck me as I watched a sign-poster stand outside a corner cinema and arrange letters on the marquee with a long, slender pole. He stood on tiptoe on the sidewalk, nudging the black letters over the ticket booth. Traffic surged by, but he remained unruffled, poking those letters carefully until he almost had a word.

Watching him, I felt a strange stab of envy: If only I could arrange letters. If only I could fashion signs above the sidewalk that all the rush-hour drivers could see. It was a wild, improbable feeling. Despite four years of study – four years of wrapping my mind around Thucydides and Derrida – I had become fearful that I couldn't boast a single useful skill.

No potential employer has ever asked me to explain the images of disquietude in the novels of Virginia Woolf. Such knowledge is not an employment asset. It's not even a good conversation starter at a barbecue.

My father, on the other hand, has a way of enlivening conversation at barbecues. He listens avidly to public radio and can speak intelligently about a variety of meaningful subjects like urban renewal, counterterrorism, and the uncertain future of the Minnesota Twins.

Better yet, my father is a carpenter, and he goes to work each day to add something to the world. He comes home from work exhausted, flecks of white paint encrusted in his palms. But he can say exactly what he has done. He has a project started, a foundation poured, a new set of windows fitted neatly into walls. He has a banister.

At the end of the day, one year after graduation, I have no way to know if the work I've done has added anything. More days than not, I've felt inept and ineffective, whether cleaning toilets or teaching Faulkner. (Yes, I've done both.)

For a while, I passed myself off as a housekeeper. I had no more cleaning experience than a few inspired mornings when I ventured a broom under my dorm-room bed. I have pretended to be a receptionist, though I winced when my boss glanced in my direction for fear she'd notice I typed with four fingers instead of 10.

At one point, I spent a week in a windowless basement room, making photocopies with a zeal that surprised me. "Practicing for a career at Kinko's?" a professor at my college kidded, finding me bent over a copier, defeated again by a paper jam. Nothing I did in college – none of the mind-bending tests or arduous assignments – prepared me for the incompetence I felt in the half-dozen entry-level jobs I've tried.

Despite this feeling, and despite the growing trend toward designing college programs that translate more directly into careers, I am recklessly grateful for my education.

One of my finest professors – an infuriatingly argumentative man – warned me that I might feel this way. When, in the middle of my college years, I suggested that college ignored the practical world, this professor turned red. "College," he insisted, "does not shut out the world, but opens it up." He continued: "You can graduate only when you have more questions about the world than when you started."

A year after graduation, the questions remain inexhaustible.

I was reminded of this a few months ago when I traveled west for a month. One evening, driving with a friend through the Navajo Nation in New Mexico, we were stopped by the sight of a family in a pickup along the side of the road. As we climbed out of our car, an old Navajo man slid from the back of the truck and spoke to us, his English rubbing against an unfamiliar accent. A young girl at his side offered us cupcakes. Then, an elderly woman scooped out something warm and sticky for us into tall cups. Eyeing the sign, I asked, "What is 'blue mush?' " Awkwardly, we handed over our coins. The only thing we could learn about the mush was that it was edible.

Of all the encounters and failings of my postcollege life, this moment stands out. My question about the mush was the first of countless more. What sort of lives did this reticent family live? I spun the dial on the car radio, listening for stations that broadcast in Navajo. I paged through library books. I spent hours in museums, absorbing Navajo history, stories, and unrelated facts. By the end of the trip, I had still more questions.

More than any knowledge or skill, it is this hunger that my education has given me – a desire to see, to probe, to care. At its best, a liberal-arts education enlarges the borders of our imaginations, so that we want to see more than a page or person reveals in a casual glance. We want to slow down when we see something unfamiliar and turn back.

In doing this, we do not add to our résumés; we do not become higher-wage earners or better receptionists. We become better citizens. We participate in the affairs of living with more sensitivity, inquisitiveness, and love.

Lately, I've been spending my days writing, staving off a copying career at Kinko's. A little plastic hammer rests on my computer. It reminds me that I might yet build something. I cannot construct a breakfast nook or a banister, but I hope that I, too, will make something substantial.

Like the sign-poster at the cinema, I slide letters together, till I spell something almost meaningful, till I almost have a word. I am waiting to see what my words will ask.

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