Saturday, April 30, 2005

Notes on education from someone without a degree

I'm graduating from college in exactly two weeks.

I'm not walking in the graduation. My parents aren't even coming (because I told them not to worry about it), because what's going to change that day? Besides the fact that I will no longer be covered on my parents' health insurance, auto insurance (no biggy, because I won't have their car either), or cell phone account―nothing is going to change. My diploma doesn’t mean much of anything. I have a bachelors in English….wow, I'm set!

Let’s take that for starters. What’s your first response when someone says they’re getting a bachelors in English? Do you say, “Oh, so you’re going to be a teacher?”? If so, please stop. English majors don’t spend all their time diagramming sentences and learning vocabulary words, okay? That’s ridiculous. “English” is a misnomer. First and foremost, we study language, in the context of English, our mother tongue. That’s why 70% percent of law schools in America will take an English major over any other major, even pre-law, because we are taught to use the language efficiently.

Furthermore, English as a university major, from my experience, is the most expansive and inclusive major one can follow. As a senior, I have taken upper-level classes in many different departments at my university. I’ve had political science students asking me to help them understand political theory, I’ve debated concepts of physics with professors, and I’ve held my own in economics discussions with economics majors.

So, now you’re saying, either those people were idiots, I’m lying, I think I’m a genius, or I am a genius (not likely…I mean, I did start the sentence with a conjunction). None of the above. I’ve studied everything from Adam Smith to Newtonian theory to trends in architecture that correlate with colonization in classes on 18th century literature; I learned psychology from reading modernist literature; etc. There is essentially no philosophy (scientific, linguistic, political, etc.) that is not incorporated in some way in the study of language.

On top of that and, perhaps, most important.....I really want to learn everything.

To study language is to study the means by which all knowledge (our concept of the world) is spread, so it seems pretty obvious that the study of language should be a prerequisite to studying the world, whichever aspect of the world that one chooses to focus on?

One obvious fault in my tirade may be to say, “Well, yes, Robert, that is pretty obvious and that’s why even the best science universities in the country have very strong humanities departments.” My response in that case is that most, if not all, of the universities in the South missed that boat―which is to say, the boat that took all the good education with it.

The South is the land of the “go to school to get a good job” folks. We lack reason. My university, for instance, prides itself on the starting salaries of its graduating students (myself not included), and consequently it never says too much about the increase in salary its alumnae experience as they advance in their careers. That’s because my university is a science-focused university. One-third of all incoming freshman (about 3,000 a year) are engineering majors. The problem with our graduates: they were taught (well) to do a job. They were not taught to innovate.

So (He did it again with the conjunctions at the beginning of the sentence!!!!!), our graduates hit a wall after several years. They don’t advance salary-wise, because they don’t have the skills to do so. On the other hand, everyone (not just at my university) sort of chuckles at humanities students for their choice of focus in studying, because we don’t deal with reality and we don't make jack-squat when we graduate. They overlook the fact that, statistically, the salaries of humanities students after graduation never stops rising.

Take a look at how many people on the Fortune 500 list were liberal arts majors at some point in their lives. I doubt, seriously, that many of them were engineering majors.

I hate that I even bring up money. It’s not about that. It’s about the lives of a lot of people that I know that just aren’t very happy because they did what they could do, not what they wanted to do. Our society drives people to do what will make you money, because that’s where happiness comes from. Because of that, a lot of people pick majors that will make them money after graduation,'s the kicker.......the find that money isn't happiness if your're working 70 hours a week at a job you hate.

Conversely, a lot of folks will gladly work 70 hours a week and get a crap salary if they're doing what they're passionate about. But, alas, I'm surely not being realistic.....I was an English major.

We need to get away from the idea (1) that college is for everyone, (2) that in order to be successful you have to go to college, (3) that you should decide while your in college what you want to do for the rest of your life, and (4) that you should ever go to college for anything but to learn, nothing more.

I don’t think kids should go straight into college. I changed my major 4 times my freshman year, only because I had no idea what I wanted to do. Sure, I learned from the experience, but it would have been nice if I hadn't come to college because it was the “next” thing that I was supposed to do.

The idea that we have to go straight into college is a post WWII/GI-Bill idea. It was right for the time, but the idea that college will help you unquestionably in the real world is a misconception. The fact that parents make their kids believe that is exactly the reason that having a college degree is losing its value. Now, kids have to get seven degrees, do a hundred internships, publish a couple books, and swim three miles while reciting Shakespeare before they’ll look good on a resume. For instance, I just finished editing my resume the other day, and it’s 3 pages long, single-spaced. Do you really think that people back in the 60s had that much to list on a resume before they started grad-school?

Maybe so. I never deny the fact that I could be over-reacting. I'm just a bitter, under-apprecieted, self-righteous English major.


Anonymous al_bickers said...


It is very unfortunate that so many people confuse education with job-training. They believe that the value of education is measured by the financial rewards it produces.

If we are going to measure value that way, we must be consistent. Perhaps I should do a financial analysis of children? Unless I own a Nike factory in Indonesia, I would surely conclude that children cost more money than they bring in and that it is a bad idea to have children. Should I also consider the net financial return to reading a book? How about making love? Of course, I would never go dancing with my wife - the net financial return would be greater if I spent the time working instead. Clearly, the greatest things in life cannot be fully measured in financial terms.

We must feel sympathy for anyone who cannot see that education has inherent value and that financial compensation is only one of it's many dividends.

I think you are wrong about earnings - all of the research I have seen finds that on average, people with engineering and business degrees have significantly higher lifetime earnings than people with liberal arts degrees (Although, when the statistics are done right, these studies find that much of the difference can be attributed to other factors, most importantly the number of hours worked.)

You said that "to study language is to study the means by which all knowledge (our concept of the world) is spread." I disagree. You might be surprised to find out how much is communicated mathematically.

You said "Take a look at how many people on the Fortune 500 list were liberal arts majors." The Fortune 500 is a list of businesses, not people. Estimates of the percentage of CEOs of these companies with liberal arts undergraduate majors range from 15% to 70%. Most CEOs have graduate training in an applied field (most commonly an MBA).

8:26 AM  
Blogger Robo said...

First of all, Al, thanks. This is the kind of stuff I need!

Well, in reponse to your disagreements, points taken.

A few notes, however:

- Mathematics is a language, is it not? To use the word "language" to signify only that which we speak or write in the form of "words" is limiting. Language is, essentially, communication, nothing more or less.

So one would probably say, "Okay, either way, English majors don't study mathematical language." Well, I would beg to differ. There is nothing encompassed in literal language that can't be explained mathematically, and vice versa. THe different languages cannot be seperated.

Does that make sense? I might have to think about that a little more.

- Concerning the engineering and business salary discussion, this definitely depends on how you look at it, and you showed both sides. However, "lifetime earnings" does not indicate significant salary mobility, nor does it show that the salary/hour ratio is better.

Part of this section of the essay stems from what I see as another problem we have: working 50 or 60 hours a week, never taking vacation, just to make money. We have been conditioned in the states to think that work and making money are respectable, but what good is the money if you have no time to spend it or use it in some way to really enjoy life? We look at the "lazy Europeans" with their 4 or 5 week paid vacations....but, that's what I want! We've got our priorities mixed up, we shouldn't work to make money, we should work to do something meaningful as a means to enjoy life, right? Is working for money enjoyable when you can't spend it? Does this make me lazy (Al, I know you weren't implying this, I just have a tangent problem)

- Finally, about the fortune definitely got me on that one. That was a discussion several years ago, which I wanted to cite, but I could not find the information that was initially used. Furthmore, the information I tried to summarize, I obviously botched. I'll concede that argument.

Anyway, thank you. I need people to do this.

Have a good one.


10:24 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home