As a career center director, I often ask alumni about their job titles, employers and other career-related topics. But of all the questions I pose to alumni, my favorite by far is an unexpected one: “What was your favorite ‘useless’ class?” I go on to explain what I mean by this: the class you took because it fit your schedule, because it fulfilled a requirement, or maybe even because it was the only class still open when you registered. The question confuses some readers: “Wait a minute — if it was useless how could it be my favorite?” So some reply literally about a class they wish they had never taken; and perhaps you remember a few of those yourself. But most liberal arts graduates get it. They know exactly what I’m referring to: that “useless” class that changed their life in unimagined ways.
I receive long replies about how they have spent every summer touring Civil War battlefields due to the history course that sparked a lifelong interest in the Civil War. Or how they practice medicine differently from their colleagues due to the philosophy class that changed their perspective on life. Or the language course that led to study abroad and then led to an international consulting career. How the readings in a literature course touched their soul and started their career as a therapist. The sketchpad and pens they tuck into their suitcase when they travel because of the art class that taught them a new way to view and interpret the world.
My current students get it too. When I ask them if they have taken a class they thought would be useless, only to find it was valuable, about 60-70 percent of them raise their hands. And I learn about new majors pursued, career paths forged, connections to professors and ideas they would never have known otherwise, and life-changing decisions made.
It’s one of the hidden gems in a liberal arts education. It’s hard to explain, particularly to those who are only interested in the immediately useful and practical elements of an education. And unfortunately you can’t tell anyone how to find it. Because how do we know what class will be useless and what will be life-changing? How do we predict which course will inspire a lifelong passion or hobby, teach us a new perspective, uncover a hidden talent or skill, or lead to a new career? We don’t. We can’t. What we can do is remind students to stay open to new ideas and information and see what unfolds. We can encourage them to take a risk on a class that intrigues them. We can tell them to show up with an open mind and learn. But we will have to wait for them to discover their hidden gem just like we discovered ours. And we know they will.
By the way, what was your favorite ‘useless’ class?