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English majors can do this math

OPINION

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September 04, 2012|By Stephen Markley, @stephenmarkley | For RedEye

English majors spend a large amount of their college and post-collegiate lives as the butt of jokes. When I was a sophomore at Miami University, I took a class on fairy tales, and there still are two girls whose paths I occasionally cross in the real world who do not know my name and refer to me only as "Fairy Tales" because they once saw me reading my big book of fairy tales for the class.

Therefore, I was happy to see a study done by salary.com on the degrees that offer students the best return on investment. The author found that majoring in English was one of eight degrees that offered the most bang for its buck—right up there with engineering, IT and economics.

This may not surprise humanities majors. As an English and history double major, I don't remember a single, actual, verifiable "fact" from my entire undergraduate career. In terms of themes from Zakes Mda's "The Heart of Redness" or specific dates of the Counter-Reformation, I might as well have spent four years soaking in a tub of Natty Light and used condoms. However, I still consider that education invaluable and will gladly argue the value of the liberal arts degree.

"It's the art history major's fault," I'll hear. "She spent four years getting a worthless degree and now she wonders why she can't find a job."

Yet have you ever talked to the art history major? Her mind is nimble and she impresses with her insight into situations and circumstances and institutions that many an MBA degree-holder fails to appreciate. We could have used a few more art history majors on Wall Street during the past decade.

Yet education continues to be commodified, reduced entirely to another cog in a market system that demands to assign everything a value. Thus in the age of educational austerity, universities are being coerced to ape the online, point-and-click snake oil of for-profit higher ed, a model that will ostensibly "teach" people things without anyone actually learning much.

In case you missed it, all information is now available in a six-second Google search. The ability to "know" something has become far less important than the ability to synthesize knowledge. Because somewhere at the nexus of history and literature and economic theory and social movements and political machinations and scientific advancement, there does lie a kind of truth.

And if you believe, to paraphrase Fox Mulder (David Duchovny was an English major!), truth is out there, then that English class where you debated the meaning of the ringing telephone on the opening page of "Native Son"—arguing errant, passionate points of race and class and capitalism and religion—simply doesn't have a dollar value. Even if it does lead to a high-paying job as a speechwriter or a Web content manager, money comes and goes. The moments that reveal the human narrative, that open doors in your mind you previously didn't know were there, do not.

Plus, while my roommate burned his brain apart on differential equations, I totally got three credit hours for writing papers on "Little Red Riding Hood." I can't wait to mail him my next book: "Fairy Tales Markley Rides Again, You Stupid Engineer."

RedEye special contributor Stephen Markley is the author of "The Great Dysmorphia" and "Publish This Book."

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