Friday, November 17, 2006

A Room of One's Own: Or, In Defense of the English Major

Some things are more important than money.

Scratch that. A lot of things are more important than money.

Here's the thing, though: money plays a supporting role in well-nigh everything. In A Room of One's Own, Virginia Woolf takes a crack at explaining why so few canonical works have been written by women. Her explanation? Money and time. Historically, women's literacy has lagged men's. Historically, women have not had money of their own. Historically, women's work has been domestic, and has thus infringed upon their ability to claim private time. The book's title comes from its author's assertion that what one needs to be a writer is an income (note: this is "an income" in the now-outdated British sense, meaning interest on a principal that is never touched) and a room of one's own. So we have money (an income) and what money buys (private time away from work--we might think of this in a contemporary sense as the money not to have to work, or the money to pay a nanny, or both).

So far be it from me to say that money is unnecessary to what my college calls in its promotional materials "the life of the mind." It's simply not true, and many of the life-of-the-mind-living too often forget that.

On the other hand, there are things I wouldn't ever sacrifice for money, and my education is one of them. So is the education of any children I may have. It's absolutely my top priority, just like my education was my parents'. It breaks my little heart to see personal finance blogs advising "send your kids to community college--they can transfer to a state school for graduation," and "don't major in English." There may well be people who choose their college majors based on the kind of salary they'll earn after graduation, but I don't know any of them, and frankly, I don't think I want to. A close college friend who was an Economics major studied it because she found it fascinating. She wrote a thesis on historical preservation and now works at an urban planning firm, making a little more than I do. Could she have made more money at a think tank? Yes. But she's doing what she wants to be doing. Study things because you find them fascinating--welcome to the world of intellectual curiosity. Don't study things because you can put up with them and they'll let you buy a big house.

I understand that I speak from a place of privilege, that my "and the paycheck be damned!" approach is absolutely unfeasible for many people. Too many people. But as much as I want to learn to manage my money, as much as I want to make it take me as far as possible, I wouldn't ever give up my "life of the mind" for double the pay. I turned down a job at $32,500 to take this one, which pays $30,000 and double the satisfaction. I couldn't live my life doing something that didn't interest me and reward me.

And really my point is that there are things you don't cut corners on. They're different for different people. I have a friend who buys pretty much everything used, including her clothes and her furniture, but will shell out $25 per pound for custom-blended loose-leaf teas. It matters to her. And if your child is interested in something, loves something, wants more than just a big paycheck--education is one of those things. It's not about what an employer will think upon seeing "Vassar" or "Wesleyan" on your resume (despite the fact that the names of non-Ivy institutions are often more important than one might think). It's about the way in which a good education changes its recipient's life, and his mind.

There are qualitative differences between small, private schools and large state schools. Not just in terms of a student's ability to coast (though really, economically, wouldn't the model be "the school that provides the biggest return for the least amount of effort is the best"?), but in terms of the degree to which academics insinuate themselves into everyday life, the extent to which they are really the raison d'etre. One might theoretically argue that one purchases, for the extra money, far more hours of academics at a liberal-arts school than at a state school or community college. One also purchases individual attention from professors who will act as mentors and networking hubs. One purchases, in many but not all cases, higher academic standards that will give your child the maximum value for your educational buck.

It's also about what we call "cultural capital." It means that the child whom you send to a liberal-arts English (or history, or sociology, or anthropology, or other "what will you do with that degree?") department gains knowledge that elevates her social status and thus expands her income horizons as well as her intellectual ones. It means that she can impress people at dinner parties, people who might give her jobs or grants or introduce her to people who will give her jobs or grants. We speak of "cultured" people. "Culture" as an acquisition is almost entirely dependent upon curriculum (or extraordinary environmental [not aesthetic] sensitivity, as in the case of your Jimmy Gatzes and other nobility-impersonators)--we learn to form our opinions and we learn the things (not just existing facts of the field, but methodology and style) that shape their formation.

We disciples of the humanities don't like to think of our fields this way. But the truth is, "knowledge is power" isn't just a rah-rah afterschool special of a phrase. It's also, in a very profound sense, true, and we can expand it thusly: "knowledge is money."

So, depending on what you consider "valuable," there may be an argument on purely economic reasons for the English major. Me, I just like reading books, but I recognize that my English education has provided a few completely invaluable income-earning abilities. I have the name of my college behind me, which may not be as recognizable as "Harvard" ("the H-bomb," to those in the know), but is recognizable to academics and those who follow academics--the first question in my job interview here was, "Oh, do you know [Professor X]?" I did. I never took a class with him, but at a small liberal-arts college, you know everyone. Another question? "So, what are you reading right now?" (Answer: Special Topics in Calamity Physics, and despite the fact that several major book reviews have given it raves, here are my problems with it...) I am not just more articulate because of my English degree, I am better able to navigate the minefields of aesthetics that permeate fields from publishing to advertising to product development. And? I've read a lot of great books, and I know why metonymy makes the world go 'round.

This is quite garbled (probably, then, it doesn't display my degree to its best advantage), but it can be summarized thusly:
1) What shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world and lose his own soul?
2) An English (or, generally, liberal-arts) education is really far more tangibly valuable than many people think.


S/100/30 said...

You're conflating two very different issues: the value of the small (expensive) liberal arts experience and the value of majoring in English.

Yes, for the people who have parents who can provide the sort of competitive advantages generally needed to get into places like Swarthmore and who will be able to subsidize the adult graduate as she starts her career in a satisfying, low-paid field (driving down wages and making it even harder for people who don't have wealthy parents to pursue that field), majoring in English makes sense.

For the lower-SES student attending at East Texas Tech on loans, it's much harder to argue for English as a viable major.

To be fair, I guess it's not that you're conflating the issues, but that they're inherently intertwined.

English Major said...

I agree that the two issues are inherently intertwined, and I don't think I did a particularly good job of sorting them out.

The truth of the matter is that I'm not even sure I can sort these things out in my head, but what I do know is that I really hate to see people
a) denigrating the value of humanities-based programs of study, and
b) urging parents to "save" on education much as one "saves" on a big-screen TV, putting available money to other uses, while assuaging their justified fears about the quality of education their child(ren) will receive at their local community college with anecdotes about CEOs graduating from community college.

Anonymous said...

I agree that a major like English makes sense if it is from a good college. It's pretty worthless from lower grade colleges IMHO unless you are VERY good and headed for grad school in law or something or a PhD. I think it can make sense to go to a lower cost school for the first two years if you can transfer to a higher status school for the final two years. My father was concerned that I wanted to study geography. He was a lot happier when I did a joint major with economics. He was surprised when I finally got a PhD in geography. And now I am an economics professor. At a top 50 doctoral university (though not a top 50 economics department). Undergrad and masters I did at state schools in Israel and Britain for free (they are world class colleegs though) and then private PhD in the US for free too.

Faryan said...

I applaud your resilience. I'm also an English Major, grad of 07 and somewhat at a daze in terms of career options. I think English is a great medium for a person who is interested in humanities, but can't really shoe themselves into a particular field (I was into art history, aesthetics, philosophy, economics, sociology and psych...English it was!).

That being said, I feel left behind my friends who all majored in finance, econ, engineering and such. They have so much more earning potential at a young age which compounds into far more utility down the line.

In hindsight, I wish I doubled with finance, drudged it out for however long and then assumed my passions. I'd love to be a starving artist in NYC, but even getting there is tough with just an English degree.