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2012 Spring Issue 6 (May 11, 2012)

The Limits of Versatility

May 11, 2012
By Griffin Johnson

When I decided to major in CAMS, a big selling point was that it was “versatile.” To be clear, I love screenwriting, cinematography, directing and film history, but when you get down to zero reality, I’m as worried about employment as anyone on this campus and I wanted a major that would get me up to date in a lot of different areas — computers, cameras, visual communication, and all the other skills that you put on your resumé to let people know that you’re playing ball. CAMS seemed to salve that anxiety, at least a little, but since I declared, it’s been eating at me that choosing CAMS might not have been anything but a confirmation of the wimpiest, most escapist part of my upbringing — the part that’s conditioned me to avoid making choices at all costs, especially if I can make the excuse that what I’m doing is “versatile.”
I was five years old when my parents, enlightened Ann Arborites that they are, sent me to a Montessori kindergarten. It sounds like the punchline of a joke in a Wes Anderson movie, but there you are. It was just me and thirty other kids in a refitted cottage in the woods, building pink towers and singing songs about the seasons. The idea of the Montessori model is that you have more or less complete freedom to do anything you want, and there are objects all around you that are supposed to stimulate your cognitive abilities when you play with them. I’m still not sure whether that’s a crock of New Age garbage or not. It’s not really the point, anyway.

From there I moved on to the attached Montessori elementary school, where I climbed trees and read the same books over and over for two years. I read Audubon books, fantasy novels and old historical fiction. I screwed around with the set of abacuses that the school inexplicably had mouldering next to an old fireplace. I drew pictures. I made sandwiches.

My parents eventually put me in another progressive-type school, where I finished elementary and stayed until the end of middle school. The idea of this school was that it was “project-based” — we were supposed to learn through long-term exposure to a single subject, like science fiction, or meteorology, or the Khmer Rouge regime, and teachers in every subject worked on putting together a long-term project that we would all work on. The goal of this whole thing was to get us thinking in as interdisciplinary a way as possible — considering the sociopolitical circumstances of the Cambodian genocide, the propaganda that Pol Pot used to get people into the fields, the way the soil composition changed after all the mass graves.

After that I went, this time of my own volition, to a magnet high school that let students take classes off campus. So while I was avoiding the Advanced Placement system — instead taking classes with big, expansive names like Media in Motion and Ultimate Questions — I could also take classes at the University of Michigan and the big high schools in town. Rather than taking, I don’t know, Psych 101, though, I leveraged that into a getting into a class at another high school, a class that was just called Humanities.

Through it all, I increasingly had the sense that I was just killing time, doing as much well-rounded edification as I possibly could before I got to some mythical point of singularity, at which the digressive, sprawling mess of my education would collapse to a single point and I’d have to just pick one subject and run with it. This prospect terrified me — after all, I’d never had any experience with it other than as a vague phenomenon to anticipate with fear and apprehension, and I did as much as I could to put the moment of singularity off.

I applied only to liberal arts schools that had a lot of distribution requirements, very wide-reaching programs that I couldn’t hope to complete in less than two years, programs that focused on the interdisciplinary aspect of things, “versatile” programs. And so I ended up at Carleton and, right on cue, as if it were just for me, they built the Weitz Center.

But the thing is, it wasn’t just for me. In fact, it was almost literally for everyone. The Weitz is now Carleton’s flagship building, a Voltron of CAMS, English, Dance, Theater, Studio Art, Art History, Spanish, History, etc. The fact that this huge hodgepodge of disciplines is getting talked up everywhere from the Voice to the admissions brochures to the Chronicle of Higher Education means that it polls well. And if the Incarnation of Interdisciplinary Education polls well, that means that, abnormal as my education might have been, the fear of choice that it represented must be common to an awful lot of high school students.

The fact is that American education in general has a commitment to this kind of lateral-movement liberal arts model. The French system, of declaring your major, more or less, when you’re 16, is a demon that my high school teachers liked to summon when they were trying to lionize the freedom they gave us. And I believe them, more or less — obviously, I picked the “versatile” major, and as gloomy as the economy is, I don’t worry that I’m shooting my career in the foot. But again, at zero reality, we’re in a system that’s not only afraid of but ideologically opposed to the idea of ever making an irrevocable decision.

And from a standpoint removed from career considerations, from the more holistic perspective that I’m supposed to be acquiring through all this versatility, it’s easy to see that you can’t avoid irrevocable decisions.

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