Friday, December 16, 2011

"How I use my useless degree" or "English major? What're you gonna do with THAT?"

The Occupy Wall Street protests have inspired a whole heap of emotions, arguments and odd conjectures in my little corner of the internet. I’m not here to add to the ruckus by offering yet another inconsequential opinion piece on Occupy – I’ll just say I’m for it and leave it at that – but I would like to address one recurring complaint that hits close to home for me.

I’ve seen a number of people dismiss the Occupy protestors as kids who chose their college majors poorly. Depending on who you listen to, young students of the Liberal Arts are anything from pitiable suckers who’ve been duped by a cash-hungry university system to whiny morons who should’ve known better than to think a History degree would get them anything but a very expensive wall-hanging. In between lies a huge range of criticisms and even a few cogent points (the notion that many colleges have become tuition-gobbling diploma mills has much credence), but the underlying message is the same: in terms of employability, a Liberal Arts degree is useless.

I am the holder of not only a B.A. in English from a Big 10 university, but also an M.F.A. in Fiction Writing from a big-city art school. Conventional wisdom suggests that my tuition fees were a poor investment, as getting “DO NOT HIRE ME” tattooed across my face would have gotten me the same results for a fraction of the cost. Back in my undergrad years I grew accustomed to witty wisecracks along the lines of, “English major, eh? Hope you like making lattes!” (I rather do, but that’s beside the point.) And yet here I sit in late 2011, a productive, tax-paying homeowner gainfully employed in an occupation directly related to my course of study. Either I’m some kind of paragon of hard work and overachievement or my education isn’t quite as worthless as you might think. (Hint: it isn’t the former.)

Contrary to popular belief, my liberal arts education has been instrumental in landing me jobs. My first genuine, cubicle-and-benefits job was writing copy for an apartment location service in Chicago. I’d been futilely sending out applications to all manner of companies for many months when a company I’d never even applied to contacted me out of the blue. The company’s human resources manager reached out to me because my CareerBuilder profile noted my creative writing background. During the interview she explained to me that they were specifically looking for someone with a creative flair, someone who could bring more to the table than the dry, lifeless copy one usually got from business majors.

That’s been a common theme throughout my career. Since leaving the apartment finders, my day jobs have included writing copy for a women’s activewear catalog and editing an online magazine for the mobile phone division of Best Buy. In each case, I started the job with no practical knowledge of, qualifications for or particular interest in the subject at hand. I was hired for all of those positions because the employers were looking for someone creative, talented and adaptable. Coincidentally, those were all skill sets I honed while pursuing my Liberal Arts degrees.

I can’t really blame folks for thinking artistic studies are impractical. Most of them are to some extent. (But what isn’t?) I certainly can’t claim that being able to write a 20-page essay on unconscious colonialist themes in Thoreau’s Walden has served me directly in the workplace. But I also think many people simply don’t know how wide the tentacles of the creative arts truly spread. When I tell people what I do for a living, I’m consistently amazed at how many of them give me a confused look and say, “So wait, you write for Best Buy? What is there to write? Like, the flyers they give out in the stores?” It has apparently never occurred to them that every word they have ever read, be it in a newspaper, on a billboard or down the side of a can of spray cheese, was written by an actual human being.

I’m looking out my dining room window right now at the Wendy’s parking lot two doors down. As an example, let’s look at the Wendy’s drive-thru order box. The name of every item on that menu was carefully chosen by a copywriter in the marketing department. Every word of text was diligently proofread by someone with editorial training. The incandescent portraits of burgers, shakes and salads were all snapped by a professional photographer. The font, the color scheme, the layout of items in a readable, customer-friendly tableau? These are all the domain of college-educated graphic designers. Hell, even the physical design of the order box itself is likely the work of a well-compensated liberal arts major. None of that crosses the mind of the average Wendy’s customer, but those arts students’ contributions have an undeniable daily impact on America’s lunch hours.

Even setting all that aside, I’ve never really understood what the alternative is supposed to be for us artsy types. It’s easy enough to say, “Study something useful and go get a real job,” but I can’t imagine that working out in practice. Sure, I could have relegated reading and writing to hobby status and pursued, say, an Engineering degree. The only trouble is that I would make an awful engineer. Not only would I find it dreadfully boring, I don’t believe I could ever be mentally capable of doing that kind of work. I often tell people that I’m good at exactly two things in life: writing and making coffee. It’s a joke, but one that’s not far from the truth. Certain people are good at certain things and it’s futile to pretend otherwise.

No one would toss a business executive on a stage and expect her to dance a palatable Swan Lake, but plenty of people would say a Dance major would be better off shoehorning herself into an unfulfilling office job. I don’t mean to suggest that every Dance major needs to stick it out and dance for a living or die trying. There are plenty of careers that incorporate physical grace and movement in much the same way that my office jobs employ my talent for creative writing. Sure, given the choice, I’d rather be writing short stories as my sole source of income, but that’s just not realistic. This is a way for me to both stay financially solvent and apply the invaluable career skills I learned while pursuing that Fiction Writing M.F.A. (Thanks again, Columbia College Chicago!)

Look, I’m not going to pretend that there aren’t a lot of pipe-dreamers in the liberal arts. Heck, when I was 18, it never even crossed my mind that I wasn’t going to be revered worldwide for my art by the time I was 23. I didn’t have a master plan or even a vague career path. I simply took for granted that the world would be gobsmacked by my creative genius and toss me right up the ladder of success. That’s just part of being a young kid with big dreams, and I don’t think I’d care to inhabit a world where it isn’t. For better or for worse, though, those dreams usually give way to a harsher reality. When that happens, those useless degrees may come in far more useful than a lot of folks would have you believe.


  1. I really enjoyed this. It made me late to work but I don't care.

  2. Thanks much. I note that you also have a job. We are legion!

  3. Hi, Ira,

    Great post, and so very accurate. Clearly your work at Columbia College Chicago served you well. We are lucky to have you as a memeber of our alumni. Write on. -Patty

  4. Permission to make required reading for the graduating seniors in The Writer's Portfolio class?

  5. Granted and then some. Maybe cut that Occupy preamble for timelesness' sake.

  6. Emily Arroyo Figueroa - CCC Fiction Writing Alumni12/21/11, 10:48 AM

    Great article, thank you!

  7. I enjoyed this piece very much. My only comment is that if someone takes a Lib Arts/Arts degree for a career they'd better make sure they're the best damn musician/painter/writer/historian out of all of them. If you're not certain you're particularly good then maybe that time and money would be better spent on a professional qualification. If not they'd do better to understand it's a gamble they made and maybe one that hasn't paid off. Kudos to you though for achieving your goals.

    1. But that's my point: liberal arts degrees ARE professional qualifications. Certainly you have to be the best of the best to make your art a full-time living, but the lessons learned in the liberal arts have wide applications beyond that.

      I actually haven't achieved my original goals, but I've done well in unexpected spheres. I don't make my living as a professional fiction writer and I probably never will. Still, multiple employers have cited my creative writing training as a very desirable asset. I've been working in a traditional American "cubicles and casual Fridays" environment for the better part of a decade, and I have art school to thank for it.

  8. I am happy for your success that you where able to find something with the "useless" liberal arts degree. but what about those english majors, history majors etc... who did not get the copy job, who are still looking? What about those who did not get the internship at Randomhouse or Norton, or some other publishing firm?

    Instead what they are doing is proably going back to school for a "real" degree or malemployed somewhere. I don't want to say with 100% certainity that the liberal arts are useless but dam there are many days where I'd rather be an unemployed grad with an accounting degree than the guy with a English degree

  9. I've been freaking out lately because of this. I am an English major minoring in Creative Writing. Lately I've been looking up jobs for the future (after graduate school) and I am terrified. There are so many skills these companies want that I never acquired in school. It's so frustrating to know I'm about to get my BA and I still haven't learned what SEO is. Not to mention, I can't use Dreamweaver. So, I've forked off into Journalism and PR. But still there are tons of things I have to learn. Reading this post made me breathe a bit easier, though, so thank you for that. I am honestly terrified that I won't find a job when I get out of school, but I'm trying to stay positive and productive.