Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Why I Tell People Majoring in English is an Incredibly Bad Idea

I've briefly touched on this subject in the FAQ section:
Seriously. Don't major in English unless:
  • you really want to teach middle/high school literature, 
  • or you are 100% sure you're going to post-secondary in something that's actually lucrative [hint: this does not include master's or doctoral programs in English, or anything else in the humanities], 
  • or you are independently wealthy and won't, you know, need to support yourself later, 
  • or you really, really like waiting tables, folding shirts, or other similarly demeaning career paths.
If you like to read, get a library card. If you like to talk about books, start or join a book club. I don't consider my lit degree a waste of time, but it was definitely a waste of money and resources that could have been better spent elsewhere. To paraphrase Good Will Hunting: all of the books I read were in the library.
but the arrival of a survey from Vanderbilt's English department inquiring as to how my course of study has impacted my life has inspired me to expound a bit. I'm not going to lie; I was irked by the leading questions about the benefits of a liberal arts education that were obviously trolling for viewbook/website fodder in light of the things that I and many of my fellow English/humanities majors have experienced since graduating.

While I'm on board with the ideas behind a liberal arts education as well as the underlying principle that education and learning are ends in themselves, not means to an end, I simply cannot, in good conscience, recommend pursuing one to the vast majority of students. At the end of the day, college costs money and we all have to eat, so future earnings potential should be a primary consideration when selecting a course of study, not a secondary. It's one thing if you're wealthy, and someone else is footing the bill for your education, and you know that you have a job waiting for you the moment you cross the stage (or that it's no big deal if you never hold an actual job). It's quite another to be middle class or lower, having to take out a minimum of $20,000 in loans (that's roughly the maximum that schools are allowed to require you to take out as part of aid packages; however, many students find themselves borrowing considerably more than that from private companies), only to discover upon graduation that your fancy-pants degree has effectively priced you out of the regular job market and you don't have the option of mom's lawyer's cousin's golf buddy hiring you straight out, and simply not working was never on the table in the first place.

Four years and countless resumes later, you're still working in jobs that require you to wear a nametag, your student loans are in forbearance (accumulating capitalized interest all the way!), and there's still no sign of a way out of the pit higher education dug, except for, you guessed it, more school. And, of course more loan debt.

That's what will really kill you if you get an undergraduate degree in the humanities. With a few exceptions, you're going to have to get some kind of advanced degree to be employable, and said degree (unless you're becoming a teacher or college professor, which, frankly, is a terrible idea in its own right given the massive surplus of people who decided to go that route) will often have very little to do with what you originally studied, and may require supplemental undergraduate coursework for admission. While some post-secondary programs are undergraduate-major-neutral (mainly, law school, but again: a terrible idea in its own right), a great many aren't, and require coursework not generally pursued by the average humanities major (pretty much everything in the health and human services fields, the sciences, technology...maybe I should have said everything except for law school).

My situation is hardly uncommon. The majority of my friends who graduated at or around the same time as I did with degrees in the humanities (and, to a lesser extent, the social sciences) who didn't go to law school are in more or less the same position that I'm in: stuck under varying amounts of student loan debt, unable to find a job befitting our educational level, and continually fending off donation requests from the old alma mater. (A number of the friends who went to law school are similarly screwed, but for different reasons.) As a result, I'm not going to extol the virtues of a student loans-funded liberal arts education to anyone who may have to work for a living one day, and I find it incredibly unethical that many universities are still selling the old "critical thinking will get you a job four years from now!" line. It might, perhaps, if you're a philosophically-inclined engineering major, but trust me, it'll be the engineering part that lands you the job, not the philosophical inclinations.

Further evidence? My boyfriend, who dropped out of a four-year program and subsequently came close to not bothering to finish his associate's degree from a community college, makes about three times what I do, and doesn't have to wear a nametag to work.

At the end of the day, I would have been much better off acquiring a library card and majoring in something useful. This probably applies to the majority of people who major in English.

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