A new report based on two years of census data from Georgetown University entitled College Majors, Unemployment and Earnings: Not All College Degrees Are Created Equal (PDF) offers depressing news for any undergraduate majoring in anything in the humanities — for any college student whose major is not in a pre-professional area, such as business or nursing or computer science. Anthropology, Fine Arts, Journalism, History: These majors are among the “most useless.”
Indeed, The Daily Beast has drawn on data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics to create a list of “13 more useless majors,” as determined by recent graduate employment, experienced graduate employment, recent graduate earnings, experienced graduate earnings and projected growth in total number of jobs, 2010–2020.
At a time when student loan debt exceeds $1 trillion and when the job market is just not too rosy, the message seems clear and simple. Forget about those artistic inclinations or any thought of “studying for the sake of studying”: major in such and you can look forward to being a fast-food clerk or chain retail store minion upon graduation. A recent Associated Press analysis indeed found that half of college graduates are underemployed in such jobs or are not employed at all. Those who do have jobs have majored in the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, math).
As a college professor who advises students about graduate school and post-college plans, the Georgetown study has been on my mind all week. I teach ancient Greek and Latin languages and culture, subjects quite divorced from practical applications or careers. Most of the students at my school are the first in their families to attend college and must think practically about their education so very few can focus on Classics. Students (very few) major or minor (a few more) in Classics because they want to learn about the ancient world and because they like ancient Greek and/or Latin.
That said, I think we too often don’t see the forest for the trees and assume that only practical, pre-professional majors can teach practical, pre-professional skills. There are some kinds of experiences that some majors can provide; an education major enables one to complete certain courses in pedagogy and to get field experience. What follows are some observations about why “useless” college majors may not lead directly to a job in a certain area of expertise, but are more useful than meets the eye.
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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.
The Vietnam War seems ancient history to today’s students. But so will the attacks on 9/11 some day. “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” is a truism, but Santayana’s statement seems more appropriate than ever.
Learning history is not only facts, but how people at different times acted and thought differently than we do now, which is crucial to understanding why things are the way are today.
The Occupy protests did not just start overnight; anti-immigrant attitudes have long existed among the American public; marriage was only recently seen as based on romance; marriage was not always defined as between a man and a woman. We shrink to hear about 13-year-old girls forced to marry and have children but such was a common practice among the ancient Romans. Studying history teaches us not simply that “people back then were really benighted” but what societal and other changes occurred so that we act and think differently.
“For once great cities have most of them become weak; and such as are great in my time, were weak in earlier times. Convinced that human happiness never stays long in one place, I shall relate of both equally.”
These sentences were written by Herodotus, who lived in the fifth century BCE and is called the “father of history” by some, for his account of the Persian Wars. A modern example of his observation: In the 1967 movie The Graduate, Benjamin Braddock (played by Dustin Hofman) is told that his best best for future success is one word: “Plastics.” Almost a half-century later, plastics have become the bane of our existence, with plastic bags polluting our oceans, plastic bottles endangering us with BPAs and the list goes on.
How, in just a few decades, has something considered miraculous in the post-World War II era, become environmental enemy #1? Most of us simply can’t imagine living in a world without plastics. Without history and a historical consciousness, we might think plastic has always existed.
Photo of 1960s Tupperware party via Wikimedia Commons
Telling your relatives you’re majoring in philosophy is guaranteed to evoke responses such as “what a waste of your parents’ money” and “why don’t you do something practical.”
Studying philosophy has never been connected to getting a job, but has had plenty to do with changing the world. In Plato’s Dialogues, the ancient Greek philosopher, Socrates, has no discernible occupation, seeming to spend his days hanging out in the agora (the city center of Athens), the public baths and at various people’s houses while asking lots of questions and discussing justice, “the good,” love and the like. (Like all male Athenian citizens, Socrates did serve in the army and, according to reports, with valor.)
Studying philosophy teaches you to analyze arguments, identify logical fallacies and ask questions; to consider why what might seem to be true really is not and to be able to explain why.
Wouldn’t some people, and a lot of businesses, like it if we stopped asking these questions?
Photo of the Sather Gate at the University of California at Berkeley campus by maveric2003