09/14/2010 04:51 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Why Study English?

"Were you aware that liberal arts degrees are completely useless?"

"Did you want to become a worthless waste of space that would eventually be a ridiculous strain on society at large?"

"Did you know about English when you started it?"

"Do you enjoy being poor?" otherwise stated as, "Do you realize how much money doctors/lawyers/bankers/etc. make?"

"Did you know that studying literature/philosophy/basketweaving is a path to impending doom for yourself and embarrassment for your family and loved ones?"

"Are you afraid to get a real job?"


These are actual questions I have seen asked by many people in response to these Third World America blogs, and reading them is an adventure in wading through the muck of insinuation.

To be fair, a couple of my own questions above travel in the same realm. Behind these simple questions we can read the insinuated characteristics of a liberal arts student: lazy, unambitious, whiny, entitled, and naïve.

And no matter how innocently someone may claim that they are insinuating no such things, just asking a simple question or trying to help, the unfortunate reality of rhetoric is that words mean something, and not always what the speaker intends.

Part of my mission in this blog is to declare that I am not lazy, self-righteous, entitled, selfish, or immature. I did not choose my career path when I was too young to know better, and as hard as this may be for some people to believe, I DID know how much doctors and lawyers make when I chose to study English. You see, I had the intention of becoming a college professor, a job that requires continued hard work and, more than anything else, patience. But that wasn't my only possible route. To all of those out there who believe that the liberal arts are worthless, and that people who chose that course of study somehow deserve the economic problems they suffer, consider the fact that people with master's degrees can teach at colleges and universities, where your children attend school. Consider also that people who majored in philosophy, English, art, or music can work in communications, at museums, for non-profits, for the government, or as teachers of their particular discipline. If you really think that the liberal arts are unnecessary, please try to imagine a society that consists only of lawyers and doctors and bankers. No such civilization could exist. I encourage you to read some Aristotle or perhaps some Cicero to help you understand the varied facets of a functional society--or maybe just think about it a little harder, whichever is easiest for you.

The truth is that I represent a growing community of people who have dedicated several years of their lives to a system that is unable to provide any return. I believe that the situation for people like us who have graduate degrees but cannot find employment suited to that educational level, is unique because of one thing in particular: time. This is not to say that there are no other factors involved in getting nothing out of your graduate degree or your underperformance on the job market; I only mean that time is a special factor for those who decide to put in for the very, very, very long intellectual haul. The reality is that while you're in grad school for ten years or so, the job market changes. So why don't you just quit and do something else when it gets bad? Much easier said than done. Besides that, there is something to be said for the completion of a lifelong goal, even if it leads us toward what some people
might consider unimportant just because it is less profitable.

If we have begun to think that the arts are useless, and that people who study them don't have a place in our world, it is a sad time for us. What is even sadder is the idea that people cannot afford to study what they love, and that some people would say that they shouldn't.

"Everyone has the obligation to ponder well his own specific traits of character. He must also regulate them adequately and not wonder whether someone else's traits might suit him better. The more definitely his own a man's character is, the better it fits him." --Marcus Tullius Cicero