Flashback: It was in high school, sitting in the small auditorium with the rest of my junior year classmates, listening to our college counselor, a dryly benevolent, lean Minnesotan giant of a man, as he uttered a phrase that stuck with me, like a tiny shard of glass in the bottom of your foot that you can’t quite get out:
“Colleges are looking not for well-rounded students but for well-angled students.”
From what I recall, this basically meant that we as applicants to big-name schools should not try to simply dabble in lots of activities, but that we should instead try to shape our activities to fit some certain profile of student that each college is looking for.
In theory, this makes sense: yes, you should advise students not to partake in activities for the resume-building value. Yes, you should encourage students to pursue their primary interests.
But for a student to angle herself means that she has to shave off parts of herself to make these angles, and then she has to use these angles to wedge herself under the door of the admissions office.
I prefer to roll under, because while an angle can briefly impede a door, a marble can roll staunchly onwards.
My father is perhaps the ideal of a “Renaissance man”, and perhaps that is why I have such an enormous respect for that concept, and perhaps that is why I find myself also identifying with that role myself. I grew up falling asleep (and waking up) to my father playing Rachmaninoff on the piano, or show tunes with my mother singing along. Beside the baby grand piano (the first big purchase he ever made, before my parents were even married), was a large bookshelf, which he made in the basement with the woodworking tools he used like a pro. On the bookshelf were French short stories, all the classics, murder mysteries, Russian language books, and of course the many math textbooks that, as a professor of mathematics, he always kept on hand. He biked, he hiked, he shined his own shoes. He mowed the lawn, cooked us dinner, and helped us with our homework – any subject, anytime.
Growing up with him made me feel like I didn’t need to limit my interests, that they could expand as I grew older rather than constrict. That I could choose more and more things to learn, rather than being an expert at just one thing.
I feel lucky that I am wrapping up my college career with what I think is a well-rounded education. Yet I feel unique in that regard, and not necessarily in a good way. Many of my peers pronounce themselves experts on a particular region of the world or economics or environmental science or linguistics or neurobiology or marketing or international business…the list goes on. And those are just majors. Students also angle themselves with their high-profile internships or positions in various student groups on campus. They angle themselves as journalists, debaters, writers, or future public servants. Because of their angles, they have authority. They have power. They have access to the niche that they have chosen that is closed to outsiders.
I have skills learned through my track in college that are less easily packaged and sold, but I like to think they are valuable skills nonetheless. They are all over the place, all over the map, all over the disciplinary spectra so carefully monitored in academia. They allow me to read and write in several languages, discuss international politics, conduct critical discourse analysis, and craft research papers on subjects from theology to economics. They allow me to think critically and question hardily, to use the words necessary to express myself and to cut out the excess.
Even these skills, so meticulously acquired through my college education, only tell part of the story. What about my fierce feminist perspective? What about my love of cooking? My penchant for writing about my travels? My love of the outdoors? My skills on the violin? My desire to connect with my Southern roots? My pilot’s license? My bizarre connections with Turkey? My deep love for my family and my friends? My desire to meet new people? My emotional and mental health?
These matter, not because I want to list them off, but because they are resonating parts of who I am and what is valuable to me. They matter to me more than becoming well-angled, more than becoming an “expert” at a subject that you know someone else knows better than you do.
Simply put, I don’t want to have to angle myself. I have to acknowledge here that it I am speaking from a position of privilege to even be able to be considering such concepts as being well-angled vs. well-rounded. Yet the essence of these concepts may relate to privilege in ways that are unexpected. For my father, many of the skills that put him on his way to becoming a “Renaissance man” were due to the fact that he grew up having to fulfill the many jobs that needed to be completed on a small family farm in the American South. I, too, grew up in the South with that same kind of work ethic, the one that required me to learn to mow lawns, plunge toilets, do laundry, and cook for myself. The skills of basic survival — which can morph into rote yet pleasant tasks — are ones that are to some extent being phased out as people focus more and more. We hire people, we call people, we specialize to the extent that the answer to every problem is, “Oh, I know a guy.” (Note the gendered language even in our everyday speech.)
I’m not making a plea for the end of specialization, but I am asking people to question why they know so much about one thing, and not about another. Why you can spout off the GDPs of all these 3rd world countries, but not know how to reset the electrical breaker when the power cuts out.
I know there are people who are happy with a particular path, and you know what? I am jealous of them. I am jealous of you if you can find that one thing that makes you fulfilled and you have the resources and the drive to follow that passion.
Is my desire to be a “Renaissance woman” selfish? Is it unwise? Is it going to leave me struggling to find a job? I don’t know the answers to these questions, but I can’t imagine being “fulfilled” or “happy” or any of those other qualities that I am supposed to feel if I am forced down a particular path.
So for now, I’m still rolling under doors, up mountains, across oceans, through crowds, and around the world. And I’m picking up more skills as I roll.