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What Do You Do With a BA in English?

Today, a fellow writer friend of mine posted this article written by a UVA English professor. In it, he discusses why it is important for those of the currently matriculating crowd to consider a major in the same field of study I did 10 years ago. “All students—and I mean all—ought to think seriously about majoring in English,” he says. “Becoming an English major means pursuing the most important subject of all—being a human being.”

I can’t imagine what it must be like for kids going on to college these days. Granted, there’s always been a bias against this “useless degree” (which I pay homage to in the title of this post) but the screaming message of the masses today seems to be, “If you don’t get a college education in something that will get you a job with benefits effective the day after your graduation, you’re going to die.”

I moved to Pittsburgh literally after I graduated. I found a job within a week and immediately had a bit of a nervous breakdown. I jumped around to a few other positions, and soon I had a laundry list of experience. This seemed like a good thing, right?

The day I knew times were a-changin’ was in 2009. I was trying to get another job and had succeeded in getting a telephone interview. The HR representative asked me a few of the generic interview questions before getting to something I wasn’t expecting: “According to your resume, I see you have worked for two companies in the past two years. Why is that?”

I almost laughed – just almost – because I couldn’t imagine why someone would ask me why I didn’t stay at a job. I hadn’t been fired – if I had been, I would have expected some inquiry. But no, instead I was being asked why I wasn’t still working for the same company. 

I don’t remember exactly what I said, but I know what I didn’t say. I didn’t say, “Because I wasn’t happy.” I didn’t say, “Because I felt called to do something bigger with my life.” I didn’t say, “Because I wanted a change.” And obviously you can never say, “Because I want more money.” And it doesn’t matter what I did say, because at that point – I realized after the fact – the interview was over.

The American world is such now that the highest premium is placed on settling down and getting comfy. The message is short and sour: get somewhere you can tolerate, put your head down and make some money. Eventually you might be able to do something worthwhile but not until you’re debt-free. You folks looking for a college education? If you don’t get it in something useful, you’re a burden to the system.

I am so grateful for my opportunity to be an English major. When I stop too long and think a little too hard about my years in Richmond, I get this horrible, nauseous nostalgic squeeze around my heart because it was truly the years that defined me as a person, good and bad. Despite everything that was happening to me socially at that time, I always knew I was pursuing my passion and something I wanted to study.

I just want to hug all the young people who are facing the pressure to head into a program they feel like they have to be in. I want to reassure them that it’s going to be okay, that they’ll be fine if they do something different. I want to shake all the people who keep putting out those toxic articles about the rise of debt and the mistakes being made by anyone looking for an education and how lazy and self-absorbed young people are these days. God, it’s no wonder there’s such an epidemic of stress-related and mental illnesses.

Most of all, though, I’d like to tell Mark Edmundson that he’s right and to thank him for his article. If only there was more inspiring voices like his.

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