Though the room is bright and cozy, my guard is up. The sounds of Michael Bublé flow gently from the living room speakers, and dinner smells great in the kitchen, but we won’t sit down for at least another hour. Every college student is familiar with what comes next: as guests arrive, it seems that each of them asks, “what will you do after school?”
I am not one of those lucky few students who know the answer to that question. Guiltily I almost shrug when my older, wiser relations affectionately corner me near the vegetable platter, upstairs and downstairs, on my way to the bathroom and on my way from the bathroom, while in the sitting room or in the garden. At these functions, the question and my failure to answer it can seem omnipresent.
When I was a kid, grown ups told me that I should take my tendency to argue and become a lawyer. In high school I thought I’d work in education policy and argue on behalf of kids. Such plans weren’t more than ideas, of course; but at least they were something. And my elders liked hearing about policy work, law school or teaching. But as I repeated whatever my lines were at the time, the script didn’t sound right. My validation was always external, and I didn’t reflect much on my motivations.
Nevertheless I came to Kenyon with definite plans for the future. I had the romantic notion that I could write for a living, or at least get paid to think about words. Legal words, political words, poetic words, spoken or written, others’ and my own, old and new — all seemed variously worthy of devotion. At Kenyon, I began to question more than argue, to reflect on my motivations, to focus on what words like happiness, virtue and friendship mean and how they’re inseparable from each other. Thanks especially to my advisor — among his many statements of wisdom, he warned me to go beyond simply accumulating knowledge useful in cocktail party conversation — I’ve become a better thinker and a better person. Yet precisely because the liberal arts can be an end unto itself, learning for the sake of learning, I’ve rarely thought about it as a means to something else.
When confronted by the question of what I’ll do after Kenyon, I realize that my love for words is insufficiently requited. I call, but they don’t answer, when I take the stand to testify in defense of my last four years. The trouble with such testimony is that it straddles two spheres. I’ve worked hard to know myself, and I assumed that insight would reveal a career. (Sometimes I forget that Socrates promised no such thing, and what’s more, that he had no real income.) Friends of mine encourage me to follow them into a Ph.D. in politics, and though I admire them for their readiness, I’m not yet prepared to take that same step. Part of me envies my Kenyon peers going immediately off to do great things: every year Lords and Ladies leave the Hill as Fulbright Scholars or future doctors; they have plans to Teach for America; they’re ready to apply their education and energies to do good in the world.
As the calendar year (and decade!) come to a close, I wonder what I’ll answer. I can certainly do better than shrug. I shrug when I try to figure things out only with my brain. At Kenyon I’ve learned to consult my heart. When I listen, my heart tells me clearly that I must avoid Los Angeles traffic and highway noise, that I’ve got to find a community of good people and green spaces. Happiness isn’t as simple as finding another Gambier, of course; but neither is it very perplexing (for instance, my happiness the past week has been reading “Anna Karenina”).
I’ve spent four years studying what people think the good life is, and political attempts to structure society to make it possible, so I have an approximate idea of what I personally should do. My studies at Kenyon have taught me how to think, how to make sense of a confusing world. Above all I’ve learned how to be true to mine own self; and happiness must follow like night the day.