Saturday, June 8, 2013

Of Literature Majors and Con Jobs


"Literature majors are an ongoing con job."

Quote from a friend who shall remain anonymous. Alleged original source: said friend's friend, who too shall remain anonymous. 

Now let me put that statement in a little bit of context. We were talking about a number of different things, including, but not limited to, the current state of the US economy, unemployment rates world-wide, the hyper-segmentation of disciplines in academia, the commercialization of higher education and the unrealistic expectations that college graduates seemed to have of the world, anchored in the increasingly wide-spread assumption that we are all destined to live life to our full(est) potential and that if we want badly enough for something to be true, it will fall into place. Even though most newspaper headlines on most days belie this assumption. 

My typical reaction to this kind of a statement would have been a knee-jerk defense of the power and beauty of literature, of the cultural and political importance of the written word, of writing's fundamental role in expressing what makes us human, of the significant role theory can play in our appreciation and understanding of literature. All of which are things that I hold to be truths. 

But we weren't talking about literature, we were talking about literature majors. And in a world in which the educated and qualified are struggling to find the right - or any - opportunity, in which the hipster-on-food-stamps is not a hypothetical construct but an actual person, in which 30 somethings I know of are reluctantly pursuing internships, in which students who have been encouraged to follow their hearts and have done so are now looking around, wondering what comes next, this was a question worth considering. Are literature majors con jobs? 

Let me be the first to say that a world without literature, art, poetry, philosophy, intelligent analysis and critique would not be a world worth living in. Knowledge does not have to be useful, it is does not have to be a tool, it does not always have to be deployed in the building of bridges and the invention of wonders and the healing of mind and body. It can involve exploration, navigation, wondering, asking and answering simply for the sake of doing so. It doesn't always have to save lives, and it is enough that it enriches them. Strictly speaking, imagination, ideas and inspiration are a particularly human indulgence and have nothing to do with the necessary business of staying alive. But they are what make the necessary things bearable and even rewarding. A purely functional evolution without creativity and artistic refinement would, in my opinion, be no evolution at all. 

And yet.....enjoying and appreciating literature/ romance languages/ art history/ cultural studies is not the same thing as studying them. And studying something you enjoy does not equate to being employed and/or employable after four or more years of pursuing your passion. Being a student of literature and philosophy will equip you with certain skills that you could certainly use to your advantage in a professional setting. But other people might have acquired those skills, and a few more besides, in the course of obtaining their engineering and business degrees. And any one who has been told differently, any one who has been told that their literature/ history/ film studies degrees will grant them a competitive advantage in getting - and keeping - a job outside of academia has been conned. Because the educational-industrial complex has not  grown fast enough to absorb the number of humanities and liberal arts graduates it produces, and it has not equipped them with enough of the skills they need to thrive outside of its own ecosystem. 

I have long resisted the idea that the hard sciences are somehow superior because they can be more effectively applied to the solution of practical problems. After all, an MBA degree is a bundling of multiple 'useful' skills and yet I would be wary of asserting that it contributes to our civilization's intellectual and cultural capital in any meaningful way. Applicability is a poor measure of the inherent value of any discipline, but it is as good a measure as any of the employability of a skill. And in our post-recessionary world, that's the currency job markets recognize. 

I want kids to study the humanities and social sciences, just as I did. But this choice has consequences and students deserve to have them spelled out. In studying literature, students will learn how to construct and deconstruct arguments and texts, how to reason, what to admire and even aspire to. But the playing field that is the job market they graduate into, will be far from level. Professors and parents who tell them differently are perpetuating a myth based on a hypothetical universe that operates as it should, and not as it simply does. 

More power to those who make the impractical decision, regardless. Those who expect differently have simply been had.  

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