High school counselors need to get their hands on the little pamphlet published a few days ago by the University of Virginia. Its 22 pages contain more useful advice, more guidance and more perspective than I have heard in 35 years of high school baccalaureate addresses -- including those I've made.
The booklet, "Life After Liberal Arts," is based on a survey of 2,000 alumni of U-Va.'s college of arts and sciences and, assuming Virginia graduates are reasonably typical, it should lay to rest the myth that a liberal arts education "doesn't prepare you for anything."
Well, 91 percent of the survey respondents, representing an incredible array of professions, not only believe that liberal arts prepared them for fulfilling careers but would recommend liberal arts majors to students considering those same careers.
At a time when too many parents and counselors are looking at college as a sort of trade school, pressing students into such "hot" majors as engineering and computer science, these undergraduate generalists offer a different view of what college should do.
A 1971 biology major who later earned a Master of Business Administration and now is a bank vice president, said the undergraduate years "provided me with an overall understanding of people, politics and society, which are most important to the understanding of marketing."
A $60,000-a-year executive, a 1973 psychology major, said "liberal arts helped me with the ability to think and write." Observed a program grants specialist with the National Endowment for the Arts, "my liberal arts education did not so much affect my career as it affected and guided my personal growth."
A preponderance of the respondents, all of whom graduated in the years between 1971 and 1981, are working in careers that have no obvious connection with their undergraduate majors or even their first full-time jobs. The English majors, for example, are in fields as varied as television sales forecasting, network editorial production and systems analysis. One is an assistant district attorney.
A fifth of the survey participants are in law, 9 percent in medicine, another 9 percent in financial services, and 6 percent each in government and electronics or computer technology.
But more important than the revelation that undergraduate majors have essentially no bearing on ultimate careers is the advice these successful men and women offer those who would follow them: that they (and their parents) should stop thinking of college as an assembly line that automatically deposits them, after four years, in lucrative professions. Most experienced uncertainty, confusion and discouragement immediately after graduation, and only 16 percent were happy with their first jobs.
College, they overwhelmingly believe, should provide a solid general education. Far more important to career success, they say, is experiential learning -- extracurricular activities, internships and summer jobs -- writing and thinking skills, and the students' own personal initiative.
And yet the trend, at Virginia and elsewhere, is toward locking into career tracks as early as the sophomore year. "It seems that college students have a sense that their future might be more happy if they were getting an undergraduate professional degree as opposed to an undergraduate liberal arts degree," said Susan Tyler Hitchcock, an assistant professor of humanities who, with Richard S. Benner of U-Va.'s Office of Career Planning and Placement, co-authored the booklet. "They'll seem more ready-made for a job, whereas they'll have to sell themselves more with liberal arts."
But the unsurprising fact is that most students cannot know at age 19 or 20 what they will want to be doing at age 39 or 40. Considering the dizzying pace of new technology, they cannot even guess what the possibilities might be.
Instead of a too-early commitment to a specific career, the survey consensus recommends this "winning combination": a liberal arts foundation, complemented with career-related experience and personal initiative.
It is, to this liberal arts graduate and father of a college-bound daughter, splendid advice.