Solomon: The Dream Exposed

by Ioana Solomon | 5/2/16 5:30pm

Almost exactly a year ago today, I made the decision to come to Dartmouth. Unlike many of my peers, my choice was not entirely an easy one. Picturesque Hanover was nothing like the bustling streets of New York City. It was by all means quieter and more beautiful, with the fresh air and grassy scent that seem all but impossible to find in the city, but it was also more isolated and far less familiar. Dartmouth gave me the ideal, dreamy “Ivy-League” education, but at a cost. From a financial standpoint, I could have chosen a college that offered me a merit scholarship equivalent to a full ride. This scholarship would have provided the opportunity for a guaranteed job at a prestigious institution for four years at no cost and would have been an excellent source from which to develop the skills I needed for the field I then imagined I would be heading into. But I decided to let my heart think, and I chose the dream instead.

I chose Dartmouth for all the classic reasons — the Ivy League title, the promise of strong alumni connections, the wide array of faculty and resources, the focus on undergraduate education, the study abroad opportunities and the subtle but confident guarantee of post-graduation success. But what I mostly fell for was the mantra of a “liberal arts education” — the idea that I was free to study whatever I wanted, that I could pursue any intellectual aspiration without having to worry too much about the future and that, regardless of what major or minor I ultimately chose, I would nevertheless be acquiring the “soft” skills employers desperately sought. A speaker at one of the first-year orientation events explained, quite simply, that hard skills and field-specific information a student learns at a vocational institution change constantly and can be learned or relearned at any point in one’s career. By contrast, the soft skills acquired at schools like Dartmouth are assets that catalyze success from the very beginning and that, no matter what, will always be needed.

Months flew by, and disappointment and regret seeped through what had been rose-colored glasses. Objectively, I no longer found the study abroad opportunities as generous as they had promised to be. I was no longer as impressed with the teaching quality or the resource offerings as I had once been. And artificial features like the beauty of the campus or the quality of the food no longer seemed as important. However, one thing I still believed in almost religiously was the superiority of Dartmouth’s liberal arts education.

Now, with four weeks to go before the end of my first year, with more conversations under my belt and more hours spent thinking everything through, I am questioning that. If we were truly free to choose to study whatever we wanted, if we truly learned the same communication, writing and critical thinking skills from any subject we pursued and if all of us had an equally good chance to work for Goldman Sachs post-graduation, how come so many of us are economics or STEM majors? How come so many of us sneer, whether verbally or otherwise, at arts and humanities majors? How come so many of us use words like “useful” to describe the classes we take?

Ultimately, it feels like the liberal arts dream just isn’t being bought anymore. Whether because recruiting is getting more and more competitive or because employers are changing their preferences or maybe even because the student debt looming over our heads is forcing us to think more practically starting at an earlier age, we seem to be far less eager to believe the idealistic promises of liberal arts advocates. We associate our majors and minors more and more with our career plans, and we seem to hover over summer jobs and internships far more than academic camps or programs. In a way, we seem to be pulling in the vocational education model and wedging it into our current structure.

While the liberal arts framework is still very much alive at Dartmouth and at similarly prestigious institutions, it is likely only being sustained by the Ivy League brand or other big names and the expectation that well-established alumni will reach in and rescue the current generation with jobs and sponsorships. Otherwise, the hunger for hard skills and the desperation to connect what we learn to what we do is real, and Dartmouth would do best to recognize that, both in what it promises to its applicants and in the education it provides.