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The Unbearable Lightness of Declaring a Liberal Arts Major

Faced with a deadline to choose her major, our writer hunts down interview subjects to learn where their studies got them, no matter her mother’s loathing of the liberal arts.

Credit: Library of Congress

My mother is the sole reason my house, in Sunnyvale, Calif., could claim the title “Safest Home in America,” if such a dubious distinction existed. Eight years ago, she started an online store selling security products and stocked the merchandise—stun guns, knives, alarms—in my closet. I have slept soundly ever since, knowing that 20 pen knives and a Telescopic Steel Baton are always within reach.

Though her business is successful, my mother is grossly overeducated for her line of work. She holds four degrees (a bachelor’s in English, and masters’ degrees in world history, American history, and business) but uses almost none of them. When she took an emergency trip to China years ago, I took charge—in-between seventh-grade algebra and social studies homework.

The product of a liberal arts education, my mother is the number-one opponent of exactly that. Having just finished my first year of college, it’s time to pick a major. I’m hopeless at anything math or science-related, but my mother’s constant warnings make me uncomfortable spending $20,000 a year discussing red wheelbarrows. A recent Duke University study found that how people choose their majors is unknown, but starting salaries are a factor. I suspect another factor is mothers advising daughters to stick to useful majors and quit taking Italian film classes.

“If I had a choice, I would never have studied English and liberal arts,” she said recently. “I never used it after graduation, and I forgot most of the history and everything anyway.”

Only her masters in business has helped in any way, she says, and gives me the same advice she gave me a decade ago: You will regret studying English. You will regret studying history. You will regret studying liberal arts like I did. It was thoroughly useless.

“So, your undergraduate degree, two masters degrees, and all those years spent studying them, with an average 3.7 GPA in various honors programs, were worthless?” I ask, incredulous.

She doesn’t hesitate in saying yes, and promptly begins processing another order so that someone across the country will receive a can of tear gas within three to five business days.

 

According to promotional emails I constantly receive from my school’s communications director, I attend one of the “top public science schools in the country.” Here, a hierarchy exists of people feeling sorry for each other. Engineering majors, reveling in job security, feel sorry for everyone. After graduation, they’ll be buying rounds of drinks with their hefty starting salaries. My dorm-mates—biology majors, all of them—envy the engineering majors but feel sorry for me because I come back at 4 a.m. after working on the newspaper and will probably be doing the same thing in a decade. Even this far down the food chain, I can still feel elitist. At least I’m not a philosophy major. Then I’d really have no job.

“Colleges have become far too business-minded, to an extent that really disgusts and worries me.”

Not so, says Sam Biddle, despite his column for The Awl being titled “Diary of an Unemployed Class of ’10 Philosophy Major in New York City.” Sam, newly graduated from Johns Hopkins University, says his degree is not to blame.

Sam—like myself, my campus newspaper staff, and half the people I know—always wanted to write for a living. Entering college, he found himself in the same situation I face now: no major secures a writing job, our schools don’t offer a journalism major, and we are terrible at the natural sciences. I’ve decided to wildly ask people for advice, and I went to Sam first. Sam says he decided to study philosophy because he was interested in it.

“Colleges have become far too business-minded, to an extent that really disgusts and worries me,” Sam said. “Rather than cultivating intellect—which can be applied flexibly, far outside of academia—I’m afraid colleges are going to start to turn into a place to pick up a white-collar trade.”

Sam, who grew up in the “enormous, megaton liberal enclave” of Washington, DC, said his parents were thrilled at his decision. I grew up in the enormous, megaton liberal enclave of the Bay Area, and still can’t believe his parents didn’t blackmail him into an accounting and economics double major.

“[Washington, DC,] wasn’t really the kind of place where your dad takes you out back with a hatchet and says, ‘Son, I’m going to teach you the value of a dollar today,’” Sam said. “My friends and I were always encouraged to do whatever upper-middle-class self-indulgent pursuit came to mind.”

The question of “how are you going to find a job?” still looms. When he presented the question to a career counselor in college, he received stares and some free pens. Sam, graduating straight into a recession, is still looking for work, but says this isn’t because he majored in philosophy, but because he majored in liberal arts. Saying so, he has confirmed my mom’s worst fears.

“When people joked that a philosophy major wasn’t going to land me a job, I would sort of nervously agree and laugh along with them,” he said. “It’s true. If you want to have real confidence in your post-college job prospects, then you should pursue engineering or one of the natural sciences.”

 

After talking to Sam, I made a list of everything I want to do—double major, study abroad, work in journalism—and showed it to my friend. “Essentially, you want to be Dave,” she said.

Essentially.

Dave Harvey is a former newspaper colleague, but also a high school dropout, former meth addict, and former Navy sailor. (Those aren’t the parts I want to emulate.) I want his dual degrees in political science and literature, his experiences spanning Africa to Thailand. I want him to succeed because I want to follow in these footsteps.

Unmotivated and uninterested, Dave dropped out of school at 15 to begin a career in such glamorous lines of work as a morning pizza dough-preparer at Papa John’s, afternoon employee of Arby’s, and nightshift janitor at a metal shop. For three years, he worked three jobs at a time, first to finance a costly meth addiction, then to finance kicking his costly meth addiction.

He joined the Navy a month after his 18th birthday, and like other sailors, spent most of his time on the boat sleeping, eating, and playing video games.

“At the time, the military was vastly different from what it is today,” he said. “We were complacent, unprepared, and treated our job like a nine-to-five.”

Dave’s boat was pulling out for a routine three-day stint in the Pacific when the first plane hit the World Trade Towers. The sailors ended up at sea with an unsure political climate, broken laundry machines, and three pairs of underwear each.

Dave is smart, talented, and, now, educated. But a year after graduation, he freelances for a tourist website and lives in one of his former coworker’s spare rooms.

“For the first time I wanted to know what was happening, and I couldn’t,” he said. “The only news we got was from our captain, and it was limited. Then we pulled in and the whole country, in my perspective, had gone mad. That’s when I really learned about nationalism, and I didn’t like it. That’s the point I learned how terrible the media was.”

He started taking high-school equivalency classes on the boat, but higher education seemed unlikely. There was the prospect of a Navy-contract job, and marriage with a girl who wanted a white picket fence and nuclear family.

He decided against the job, decided against the picket fence, and took courses at community college instead, eventually transferring to university. There, his interest in political science caused him to spend a year in Egypt, volunteer in Ghana, drive from London to Mongolia, and visit Thailand. Combined with studies in creative writing, this sparked an interest in foreign reporting, the same field I hope someday to work.

“[Thanks to my degrees] I am informed, but jaded,” he said. “I’m so glad I chose school instead. I’m very critical of writing, I am knowledgeable, but, you know, still not marketable.”

Since Dave has studied the subjects I’m interested in, done the things I want to do, and wants to work in the same field, it makes sense that he foreshadows my career prospects. It doesn’t look good.

Dave is smart, talented, and, now, educated. But a year after graduation, he freelances for a Las Vegas tourist website and lives in one of his former coworker’s spare rooms in the suburbs. He is moving to New York City this August and applying to local internships and law schools across the country. In the meanwhile, he’ll wash dishes at Whole Foods and live with a hairdresser who wants to break into the entertainment industry.

In contrast, his Navy friends with contractor jobs have steady, well-paying incomes.

 

If most liberal-arts majors serve to prove my mother’s point, poet Rae Armantrout is an exception. Rae, whose volume Versed won this year’s Pulitzer Prize for poetry, said she would have become a poet no matter the school, no matter the degree. I can identify with this sentiment—at age five I told a classmate I disliked that when I wrote my book I would name the villain after her.

“I always wanted to write poems, but it took me awhile to realize that a person could actually be a poet,” Rae said.

My mother once said, a long time ago, that studying humanities is studying things and ideas that have already happened, which she doesn’t like.

She said her sheltered upbringing led her to anthropology because it was “freeing” to learn how others lived, but changed her major to English the next year because she wanted to discuss books and poems. Her parents applauded this change, thinking English more practical than anthropology since she might become a teacher.

Her schooling, Rae said, influenced the type of poet she became.

“I was exposed to Ginsberg in a class,” Rae said. “I began reading then-living poets like Allen Ginsberg and Denise Levertov.”

At UC-Berkeley, she took classes from Levertov and later received an MFA in creative writing from San Francisco State University, where she became associated with the “language poets.” “Even the mistakes you made are part of the path that led you where you are. For instance, if I had been a more serious, consistent student, I might have gone into a Ph.D. program, and I’m not sure what that would have done to my writing.”

It’s my interview with Rae that leads to an anti-climatic realization: It doesn’t matter what I major in. I’ll likely end up in the same place anyway. Sam and Dave are right: If I don’t study science, there’s little difference between philosophy and sociology beyond what interests me more. The job market won’t be secure when I graduate, and I’m just as likely to end up washing dishes if I study history than if I study religion. If I’m lucky, I’ll end up like Rae. If not, I know how to run an online store selling security products.

So, I’ve decided to stick with political science. It teaches how the world works in a way I understand. It forces me to keep up-to-date on current events. More importantly, it adds credibility to debates with friends.

My mother once said, a long time ago, that studying humanities is studying things and ideas that have already happened, which she doesn’t like, whereas studying business is more about how the future may work. If this is true, maybe social science is analyzing how the world works at present. And I’m okay with that.

A few days ago, I asked my mother, barging in on her work again, what she thought of my decision. She said it was a good one.

biopic

TMN editor Angela Chen reads at 500 words per minute, types at 140 words per minute, and walks at five miles an hour. She lives in California, where she spends her working hours trying to do all these simultaneously. You can email her here. More by Angela Chen