If you talk to almost any academic adviser at the University they’ll tell you to pursue a career not because it would make your rich, but because it makes you happy.

Phil Dokas
Christopher Zbrozek
“Or maybe Billy Joel?” (Courtesy of ABC)

According to the US census though, most students would respond that being rich is exactly what makes them happy.

The census data, released last month, show that about 75 percent of freshman in 2005 said that being very well off was a primary personal objective.

The statistic probably doesn’t come as too much of a surprise. And making money can hardly be construed as a bad thing.

But this is what would really make your academic advisor squirm: Only 45 percent said they had a very important personal objective of developing a meaningful philosophy in life.

Given that a so many students are looking to find themselves fabulous wealth – the highest number the census has ever recorded – and just a slim minority of students looking to find themselves, this year’s sophomore class may be the most pragmatic ever.

It’s difficult trying to listen the advice of an idealistic academic adviser that tells you to shoot for your dreams, and still heed the warning of Governor Jennifer Granholm who prophecies that Michigan’s will sink if it can’t usher in a knowledge-based economy, and educate the necessarily technologically savvy workers of the future. The academic advisor may be telling you not to rule out that film class but the governor is begging you to consider engineering.

So how much can it hurt to take that math class and skip philosophy?

The answer is debatable. When classes that are directly applicable to potential careers are offered at the University, often spaces fill up days before freshman get to their registration date. Consequently, resources are poured into departments that prepare students for careers, leaving more obscure classes, like Jewish theatre and the theory of Japanese brushwork, out in the cold. That means we’re probably robbing the workforce of people educated about Japanese painting, which doesn’t seem so bad. But when it becomes the next big industry, University grads who ignored the class will be struggling to catch up, not to mention the troubles of University’s program which may have gone neglected and under funded.

Before the Middle East became a hot-button issue, the University had one of the few comprehensive programs for Middle Eastern studies. There was a day when Prof. Juan Cole, whose expertise on Iraq and surrounding regions is hotly sought after, was a relatively obscure academic. Had administrators not continued to direct resources into the program, there’s no way the University would be the powerhouse for research and ideas about Middle Eastern issues it is today.

It’s easy to get hung up on the practical subjects, to acquiesce to our parents’ pleas and take Economics 101 instead of Philosophy 402, also called Freedom of the Will, but students’ practicality could leave potentially explosive fields unexplored. The LSA offices have signs hanging calling for someone to “Save the liberal arts.” Has knowledge become less of an end in itself instead a means to get into that Tudor house somewhere far from Ann Arbor?

It’s possible. But it might not be a bad thing.

In an increasingly competitive workforce, it’s no sin to take any leg up you can get – and a specialized, career-oriented curriculum can make a difference on a resume. A big part of being a respectable citizen is being financially independent, not only to avoid being a burden on fellow taxpayers, but so one day you can donate money to the University so that it can keep its offbeat programs running and save the liberal arts.

It’s not a crime that we’re working hard now to make sure we’ll have time to leisurely sip our martinis and think about meaningful philosophies later. There’s an old proverb that says something to this effect: Money can’t make you happy, but the lack thereof will sure as hell make you unhappy. Indeed, most of us would rather dedicate out time and effort to picking out charities on which to lavish our formidable fortunes rather than fretting over where the next meal will come from.

And even though business was the most popular major choice for freshman in 2005, they weren’t all business, with nearly 40 percent saying marijuana should be legalized. While only 36.4 percent think that keeping up to date with current affairs is essential, it’s worth noting that about 95 percent earned above a B- average in high school.

The percentage of freshmen planning to major in arts and humanities actually didn’t fall too far behind that of hopeful business majors, at 12.8 to 17.4 percent respectively. Even without a humanities major, it’s virtually impossible to graduate (at least from this University) without showing professors you can think in terms other than dollars.

Maybe so few of us checked the box that said it was essential to develop a meaningful life philosophy because we already have a functioning philosophy. Maybe by checking the other box instead we’re affirming our commitment to the American ideal. If we expect to compete in a global market place we’ll have to increase our productivity first and philosophy second. And by keeping America at the top of the economic pecking order we’ll ensure that the philosophies of the at roughly 45 percent of college sophomores intent on developing them still have a place in the global conversation.

We shouldn’t start decrying the mores of our generation. At least not yet. When we’re comfortably assured that our survival isn’t in jeopardy, that’s when we’ll sit back, stop thinking about income tax, and focus on Thoreau.

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