3 “Useless College Majors” That Are Useful

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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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.

2. History

Gettysburg - Cannon and Monuments

Photo of cannon and monuments at the Gettysburg battlefield by roger4336 via Flickr.

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.

Tupperware party

Photo of 1960s Tupperware party via Wikimedia Commons

3. Philosophy

The School of Athens — Raphael

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.

Why are banks charging higher fees? What is the ideology concealed in arguments about fetal personhood and religious liberty?

Wouldn’t some people, and a lot of businesses, like it if we stopped asking these questions?


Photo by JustinMN via Flickr.

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


Harshiita Sharma
Harshita Sharma5 years ago


lis Gunn
lis Gunn5 years ago

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.

Eternal Gardener
Eternal G5 years ago


Linda C.
Linda C5 years ago

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.

Glenn Byrnes
Glenn Byrnes5 years ago

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

Kay S.
Kay S5 years ago


Past Member
Past Member 5 years ago

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.

Elizabeth Koenig
Elizabeth Koenig5 years ago

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.

Kenneth D.
Kenneth Davies5 years ago


bindy Hopper
bindy hopper5 years ago

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.