By Andy Whitman
My wife and I have seven college degrees between us. We share more layoffs than that. All those degrees, minus the dubious M.B.A. I earned a few years back, are in liberal arts fields. This may also help to explain those layoffs, although I suppose that sheer workplace incompetence can never be ruled out entirely.
All I know is this: I’m sure they exist, but I’ve never yet met a laid-off engineer or accountant.
Laid-off English majors? Yeah, I’ve met my share.
There was a time, as recently as the mid-1970s, when I was earning liberal arts degree number one in creative writing, when the conventional wisdom held that the mere possession of a college degree opened up shining vistas of middle-class respectability and privilege. You might not get rich, but you could buy a tract home in the suburbs and vacation at Myrtle Beach.
Now a college degree—at least a liberal arts college degree—will get you a barista job at Starbucks.
The cost of education has risen astronomically, and the value of that education, at least in terms of potential earning power, is more suspect and dubious than ever.
Question: how many lattes do you have to serve to pay off a $100,000 student loan? Answer: It’s a trick question. You’ll never pay off a $100,000 student loan making $7.00 per hour. A collection agency will repossess your iPhone, MacBook, guitar and Toyota Prius. It would repossess your tattoos if it could. You will end up living in your parents’ basement. I assure you that this is a prospect that frightens children and parents alike.
Last year I spoke to some of the journalism students at one of my alma maters. One hundred eager faces gazed up at me, looking for pearls of wisdom on how to translate those hopes and dreams that hunger in the gut into something more solid and substantial, something that would look like a sustainable career.
And I wanted to cry.
Newspapers are folding, magazines are going out of business, advertising has slowed to a trickle, and the few jobs that are available tend to pay in terms of “good exposure” and “a well-read readership.”
And since “make sure your parents have a basement” didn’t seem like particularly uplifting career advice, I did my best to be encouraging and talk about the value of doing what you love, of pursuing your passions. It was the standard If You Dream It You Can Do It speech, but I couldn’t escape the thought that this was Ohio, not Disneyland.
I wasn’t entirely insincere. I do believe in doing what you love, in following your dreams. I believe in the value of the liberal arts. I believe in the transformative power of beauty, and in the soul-enlarging qualities of good art, and that God is good and loving. It’s just that I also believe that none of that translates to a career.
Both my daughters are currently in school, piling up enormous debt. My oldest daughter is working on liberal arts degree number two, and my youngest daughter is about to finish up liberal arts degree number one. It’s unfortunate, but genetics is working against them. They are indisputably the products of liberal arts parents. They can’t help themselves. They could no more major in the sciences or business than Rush Limbaugh could serve as the executive director of the ACLU.
The conventional wisdom these days would tell them that it’s not worth it, and that the Return on Investment is absurdly low, if not non-existent.
Me? I’ll encourage them to be themselves, to learn as much as they can, and to let the chips (which most assuredly cannot be cashed in) fall where they may. What else can they do? These are kids who show a natural affinity for forties fashions and Bulgarian folk music, God help them. The nerd/freak apple lies close to the parental tree. They would view a spreadsheet as a potentially colorful mosaic pattern just waiting to be filled in.
The conventional wisdom also holds that the liberal arts teach people how to think. Or, as they told me long ago, a liberal arts education prepares you for everything and nothing. You’ll have to forge your own path, often with machete in hand, but you’ll be a well-rounded individual who is adept at integrating disparate fields of knowledge and evaluating different and sometimes contradictory information.
It seems to me that “different and sometimes contradictory” is very much in the ascendancy in our culture. As a nation, Americans are bombarded with information, much of it baffling and utterly skewed.
On Halloween weekend, one news network reported that approximately 2,000 people showed up for a political rally in Washington, D.C. Another news network reported that a quarter of a million people showed up for the same rally. I am admittedly not a math/science person, but this seems to stretch the boundaries of “different and sometimes contradictory” to new levels. And even I remember how to count.
In the face of this kind of world, it behooves us all, engineers and baristas alike, to remember some bottom-line facts that don’t show up on income statements. An ex-president once said, “You can fool some of the people some of the time, and those are the ones you want to concentrate on.”
Here’s the truth: it’s best if you’re not one of those people, regardless of your job prospects. I would like to think that a good liberal arts education can offer some needed perspective in the crazy world in which we live.
I’m also hoping my kids remember how to count.