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3 “Useless College Majors” That Are Useful

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1. English

Reading (30th/52)

Poetry and literature are all very fine, but being able to dash off a sestina is a talent that pays no bills and who reads poetry anymore?

So might your relatives say. But an English major teaches you two very basic and very key skills: reading and writing.

Even more, it develops and deepens those skills so you learn to read more closely, carefully and critically and to dissect the meaning of anything written, from a novel to blog post to a diagnostic report about your son’s behavior issues at school.

Our ability to use words and express ourselves did not arise overnight. An English major teaches you the history of where our language and ways of expressing ourselves come from.

Writing papers analyzing the heroic qualities of Satan in Milton’s Paradise Lost may not seem to be the best preparation for future employment. But whether via email, Twitter, texts or other social media formats, many of us are constantly writing to communicate and a solid command of English is essential. Indeed, very often now, words exchanged over the internet are the only way we interact with a number of individuals: words and writing really matter a lot today.

Photo by skippjon via Flickr.

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Photo of the Sather Gate at the University of California at Berkeley campus by maveric2003

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2:53AM PDT on Jun 1, 2012


8:02PM PDT on May 9, 2012

Sadly, the time when degrees were about knowledge, thinking critically and the professions have long since gone. Now it's all about jobs and employment. In that respect universities are a bit like assembly lines churning out widgets. The mind boggles that there are degrees in golf green management, surfing, (the best one I've heard of is a degree in make up for drag queens) all very niche markets but hardly cerebrally challenging. Now everyone aspires to a university degree when indeed technician and trade level courses are dying out. The tradesperson, the artisan and the craftsman are no longer valued.

The professions historically were medicine, law, divinity and teaching. My, how things have changed.

7:16PM PDT on May 7, 2012


4:21PM PDT on May 1, 2012

A broad-based education with an emphasis on the liberal arts teaches people how to think and how to learn. It enables a person to go through the many job and even career changes that so many will be facing. It enables people to be employERs, not employEEs because it helps them develop the ability to do research and to think independently. It helps people to be active and participating citizens. It helps people develop the tools with which to enjoy and make more of their lives (we are human beings 24 hours of every day, not just work machines) and the lives of their loved ones. In short, it doesn't give a narrow job skill that suits you for a single job, it prepares you for life. That is why certain forces are against education and for instruction. They don't want people to think or to analyze or to do research to be able to evaluate claims--they want little robots who will do what they are told and buy what they are told and abandon their self-interest to witlessly serve the interests of the rich. BTW, many in business tell those of us in higher education that they prefer hiring people with liberal arts degrees because they offer more--it is always possible for them to go on to get an MBA but it is rarely possible for someone who did not get a liberal arts undergraduate education to go back and recoup that.

4:47PM PDT on Apr 30, 2012

You'll never know what knowledge would come in handy and when.

4:29PM PDT on Apr 30, 2012


4:16PM PDT on Apr 30, 2012

I'm afraid I'll have to disagree with this article. I agree that the skills it identifies in each of the three selected "useless subjects" are in fact useful or indeed vital to have, but the implication that this alone therefore justifies them as university courses on a par with STEM subjects is, I believe, dangerous.

These skills are part of a basic set that should be part of the mental arsenal of every responsible adult. To suggest that they require university-level education in order to be useful risks giving justification to those who prefer to derail proper informed democracy by remaining ignorant and apathetic. Instead, the crucial parts of these subjects should be part of the core compulsory curriculum from a young age, to build a culture of honest evaluation and engagement among the rising generations.

12:43PM PDT on Apr 30, 2012

I'm an illustrator, and I use my background in Art, Art History, and History all the time.

But it's true--it has not been easy. Especially as a student from a very poor background--I was homeless when I was applying to university--I was often urged to go into something more practical. I soon found that other students from a poor or even lower middle class background tended to go into very practical majors such as Political Science, Economics, or the hard sciences.

Most of the students in my majors came from families that were upper class or wealthy--this was especially true of Art History.

Still, art has always been my absolute passion, and I have never regretted my course of study or my degrees.

By the way, the picture above of Sather Gate is from my alma mater, the University of California at Berkeley.

11:49AM PDT on Apr 30, 2012


6:58AM PDT on Apr 30, 2012

I would argue for his position that all knowledge is powerful and useful. I would argue against his position that you have to go to college to get it! I have a BS degree (2 actually :) but later on, I also self-taught subjects I know are courses in college- Photoshop, robotics, C++. I don't have a degree in it, but I do know them. And if that is the author's point, I still think it's valid question to tuition rates and the value of degree.
Because those two degrees I mentioned earlier are keeping me in debt to the tune of $500 a month. I feel like I'm treading water every year when I get my "you still owe X" amount slip in the mail.

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