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  • Writer's pictureDaniel Vollaro

My Worthless Degrees




I have earned three worthless degrees in the humanities, and if I could go back in time, I would do it all over again.

 

"Worthless." I want to reclaim this word for all the artists, musicians, philosophers, thinkers, historians, poets, essayists, novelists, and filmmakers who struggled to follow their life's passion in a society that just wishes we had majored in engineering or business instead, for our own good of course. We have all endured some kind of warning or chastisement or well-meaning words of advice or sometimes outright mockery for declaring our desire to pursue degrees in the humanities. America is full of people who overvalue science, technology, engineering, and math but cannot cogently explain why pursuing degrees in these subjects will lead to a better life, for you.  


Straight out of high school, I earned a BA in English with a minor in journalism. Then after two years, I returned to college and earned an MA in Jewish-Christian Studies, which is a very specialized religious studies degree. Then, after a ten-year break from higher ed, I earned a Ph.D. in English with a specialization in 19th Century American Literature. In the intervening years, I was continuously employed as a writer, an editor, and now a college professor who teaches writing. I spent fourteen wonderful years earning these degrees, sometimes at the expense of maximizing my earning potential. 


Along the way, I heard every possible slander about the humanities, and they were all proven to be untrue. I did not "starve" as some smugly predicted. I never worked as a barista, nor did I ever hang out in a coffee shop all day writing bad poetry. I never turned against the liberal arts in disgust one day thinking, 'I should have majored in engineering instead.' In fact, I have made continual use of my humanities training for many years. I live comfortably in the suburbs with a wife, daughter, and dog, and I have a respectable career as a college professor. 


When I started to draft this essay, I thought I would try to prove the haters wrong, but then I realized that this work has already been done for anyone who cares to spend five minutes on Google. Read Katherine Palmer's  "Debunking Perceptions About Value of Humanities Degrees" in Inside HigherEd, Kate Rix's "Why Majoring in the Humanities Can Be a Great Career Move" in US News and World Report, or Benjamin Wolff‘s "The Arts and Humanities Deliver Untapped Value for the Future of Work" in Forbes Magazine. The problem is not that we humanists need to strive even harder to prove the value of our work, it is that too many Americans stubbornly cling to stereotypes about the career viability of the humanities. 


Where do these stereotypes come from? There has always been a bias in America against people who appear to think too much. The “egghead” who is incapable of producing anything tangible is a familiar stereotype. So too is the "starving artist" who will not compromise to make a buck. Both are portrayed as pathetic and out of touch even though neither stereotype accurately depicts the lives of working intellectuals or artists in the U.S. The source of this animus is obvious: Americans are impatient with anything that does not appear to have some immediate application in the marketplace. Anything that cannot obviously be patented, marketed, sold, or profited from in some way is suspect.   


And this capitalist logic is often applied unthinkingly to the value of college degrees. People want to know how much you can make with your degree? Can you find a "good job," which is code for a job that will put you on an upwardly mobile path, able to continuously improve your material existence, and most important, buy the things that are supposed to make Americans feel successful--houses, cars, gym memberships, trips to Europe, meals served in Michelin Star restaurants, etc. What is the return on investment? How will you profit from this degree? How much money can be squeezed out of it in a lifetime? 


I reject this narrowly transactional, careerist requirement that college degrees can be judged based on averages of the salaries they command. Payscale.com has an interactive database that ranks degrees by both salary potential and "high meaning," which measures the sense people have that their work is meaningful. Music therapy ranks close to the bottom of degrees in salary potential but tops the ranking for meaning. On the other hand, Operations Research and Industrial Engineering is #2 in salary potential, right behind Petroleum Engineering, but ranks at the bottom on the meaning scale. Who is happier, your sister-in-law the music therapist or your college roommate the industrial engineer? You would have to ask them, and if you did, they would no doubt tell a story with twists and turns about how they arrived at their answer.  


No one or two data points alone can predict or determine the value of a college degree because so many other factors must be weighed when determining the level of one's happiness and satisfaction with work and career. Am I able to afford the lifestyle I want? How much do we make as a family, my partner’s income, and mine combined? Do I like the people I work with? How do I feel at the end of the work week? Satisfied with my work? Exhausted? Deeply depressed? Does my work make me feel like I have contributed to the greater good? How much does that matter to me? 


If I could figure out how to adequately measure it, I would add a third column to the database for "passion," because this is the X-factor that determines how successfully a person can translate their college education into a satisfactory job or career. The young woman who passionately believes in the power of music to heal people will find her way into a music therapy program no matter what her parents or guidance counselors say, and that same passion, if it lasts, will later help her turn the degree into a job. Will the salary be "enough"? Those are details she will have to navigate on her own. No degree comes with a guarantee of employment or happiness, but a degree earned without passion is a recipe for unhappiness later in life. I taught at an engineering school for three years and met more than a handful of students who were zombie-shuffling through their education because they had never seriously considered doing anything else. Good grades in math and science? You should consider majoring in engineering. And off they went. 


At my current institution, I see some business majors walking the same shuffle. 


Obviously, most people want to translate their education into a job or career. I applaud this impulse and support it wherever I can. What bothers me is the careerist logic that insinuates itself into every discussion about higher education these days. I work in the Humanities, an area of academia that is now constantly pilloried with demands to justify its very existence. If humanists are given the space to make the argument, we can prove the career efficacy of our degree programs, but it feels wrong to have to constantly defend ourselves in this way. After all, art, literature, history, philosophy, languages, writing, and music are foundational elements of every civilization that has existed for the last 5,000 years, and no entity that wants to legitimately call itself a "university" can exist without them. Even if no one with a degree in any of these subjects ever worked a single day in their lives, the humanities would still have earned a hallowed place on any college campus. 


It saddens me to meet students who cannot answer basic questions about their motivation for attending college: Why are you here? What are you passionate about? What gets you excited about coming to school? It should not be difficult to answer these questions, but many students cannot because they have been indoctrinated to think of college as a grim necessity, an entirely transactional experience in which a person must spend time and money up front to purchase access to the kinds of jobs that will lead to a comfortable middle-class life. A college degree has become such an obvious class marker in this society that many people believe its main value lies in upward mobility. Many parents are afraid of what will happen to their children if they do not earn a college degree, so they project these anxieties onto their children. 


I was never motivated by the "return on investment" rationale for spending time on a college campus. I led my educational pursuits with the desire to learn something, and then along the way, I began to think about how to translate the degree into interesting, satisfying work. And I was always able to do so. Passion first, or as Joseph Campbell said, follow your bliss. This approach has never steered me wrong because America, as it turns out, is a land of opportunity. But the spoils go to people who have that spark of passion and desire to do something great in the world. How do we light that spark in young people? This is the question we should be asking. 

 

 

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