As it happens, I am a university student. When asked what I study is, I excitedly spout the words “philosophy” and “political science”. Instead of the inquiry of interest I hope for from my conversation partner, I almost without fail seem to hear the some variation of this question: “Philosophy (or political science), what can you do with that degree?” Admittedly, that response crawls through my veins and turns my extremities cold. I do not hold resentment for those that have asked me that question, for they mean no ill. However, I still feel a certain disconnect that compels me to flirt with the response “What does it matter to you?”
It doesn’t take a looking-glass to understand that the job market is desolate at the moment. Recent studies have shown mixed results, but state that the market is short about 9 million job opportunities. The unemployment rate for young high school graduates is about 30%. Unemployment plagues those with college degrees too, but only to a fraction of the extent as it does for those without a degree; the unemployment rate for young college graduates is at about 8.8% (1).
If I am feeling particularly masochistic, I will sometimes choke down my pride and read one of the opinion articles posted on various news portals (Yahoo!, MSN, etc.). Generally, the titles read something like “10 Worst College Majors for Finding a Job,” or “These Degrees Will Hold You Back in the Job Market.” We have all seen these editorials. The aim of such pieces are well-intentioned, warning about the financial dangers of education in any area of study minus a few booming fields. The editorials will start with a some introductory paragraphs to grasp the reader and then list off a vendetta-driven diatribe against humanities, fine arts, journalism, and a few other college majors that fail at a slightly higher rate to give graduates a high paying position out of right out of college. Then, to give you an optimistic shift in pacing, the piece will offer advice on which major to choose instead. Don’t study humanities, instead, try nursing –it only carries a 6.2% unemployment rate.
The mistake being made by these writers, who generally write for financial websites, is that the only use of university is to ensure a higher-paying job than that which is available for non-graduates. As I stated preciously, the intention of that point of view is pure, simply misplaced. While one goal of a college student should be the monetary return from the investment of education, the main purpose is, and should be, the tangible knowledge gained. This includes the material studied, the life experiences gained, and the research tactics developed to give the student not only an edge in critical thinking that could dwarf that of an American high school graduate, but the methods and practice needed to create a citizen that understands the importance of being informed by truly viable sources; this is opposed to those that read the headlines on cable news networks as if the titles are Shakespearean, or the gospel-truth.
I want a job that will support a family. I have a slightly naïve hope that in the future, my spouse will be free to pursue their own interests without the necessity to sacrifice individual values, hopes, and dreams for the sake of feeding our offspring; we all have this dream. I understand to achieve this vision, a number of variables have to fall in the correct way. I can make mistakes, but I have to make the right mistakes. No matter how unlikely the end, I still practice a flirtation with this dream.
For the best chance to turn the dream into reality, I could drop my humanities course work and focus of business, medicine, or law. Statistics show that those degrees are spouting out working-class Americans and climbers of the capitalist mountain by the truckload. The notion of easier-money is salivating, and yet, wholly unappetizing. To do so would be to turn my aspirations or a career that I cherish to martyrdom in search of cryptic life of finance. Though I would complete the goal of feeding my family, it would be at the expense of my happiness and, without a doubt, implode my family life after I experience years of inward-torture. I know my spouse would have the same feeling.
The truth as advertised is that I, along with my colleagues in humanities, the arts, and others don’t care about the money. We do what we do because we are compelled to. I could not change my love of wisdom and politics any more than a bullied teen could have the gay prayed out of him. To us, the weight of our wallet is of less worth the weight of our knowledge. The enjoyment does not come solely from the return, but also from the journey of learning—the process is also the payoff. It may sound cliché, and maybe a bit romantic, but the truth is that we are following an internal calling that cannot be silenced.
The thought that institutions of higher learning have the sole purpose of simply training employees is a relatively new idea. As long as knowledge and research methods have been traded, the aim has not been financial return (unless you are from the school of Sophists). Instead, institutions like Plato’s Academy, or Pythagoras’ colony of wisdom worshipers practiced learning and though not for financial gain, but for the pure love of wisdom.
So, the crosshair of the humanities major is set on education for the sake of education,rather than education for the sake of financial benefit. The concept may seem foreign to those that were ushered into college by well-to-do parents. “Johnny, you need to go to college to get a good job.” Still, the problem of finding a job is an open case.
One article explaining the value of “practical” college degrees reads as such:
“Liberal arts and sciences. An assortment of humanities courses might round out your intellect, but it could also confuse employers who don’t understand what kind of job a liberal arts major is supposed to prepare you for” (2).
Did you know that by studying humanities, you are going to “confuse employers?” Your would-be bosses won’t know what to make of the course work or your knowledge of crazy things like the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, or Roosevelt’s New Deal. You’d be better off following your liberal college professors, listening to them rabble-rouse around town like the students of Socrates.
The truth is that employers are looking for people that are well-rounded critical thinkers. You can obtain those abilities by majoring in business, or law, but you will surely gain that and more as a humanities student. The only draw of business majors is the lack of necessity for a few weeks of on the job training. In today’s face-paced world, there is no time to hold the presses for a month to train the incoming class. There is no room for humanities majors in the working class. Or, so they say.
The truth, however, seems to be stranger than fiction.
After I get over my momentary lapse in good-will, I respond to the question posed to me. “What can you do with a philosophy degree?” I refer to a recruitment sheet done by the University of Connecticut’s Philosophy department. In the guide, references are made to the fact that philosophy majors are “rank[ed] 16th out of 50 studied—above chemistry, marketing, information technology, and business management,” in mid-career median salary. The list also states some “actual careers of UCONN Philosophy majors” like judge, teacher, dentist, attorney, corporate president, cinema writer/producer, and many more. Philosophy majors, along with other humanities majors like History and English, rank above the sciences in admission to medical school. Likewise, admission to law school is no different. And graduate school –you guessed it, philosophy majors have “the highest average among all majors on both the Verbal and analytical writing sections of the GRE” (3).
So, if you are like me and are put on trial every time a family member, friend of a friend, or interviewer asks you “What are you going to do with your that degree,” you can use the same response I do: “I can do anything I want with my degree.”
Now, for some homework: Ask yourself, “Am I truly happy with my current career, or the career path I have chosen?” Do you think that the way you have lived your life promotes your best internal interests and callings?
I chose “The School of Athens” by Raphael for this post to express the significance of study in wisdom and humanities.
(1) Shierholz, Heidi, Natalie Sabadish, and Nicholas Finio. “The Economic Policy Institute.”Economic Policy Institute. N.p., 10 Apr. 2013. Web. 12 Aug. 2013
(2) Newman, Rick. “The 10 Worst Majors for Finding a Good Job.” Yahoo! Finance. N.p., 18 June 2013. Web. 12 Aug. 2013.
(3) “”What Can I Do with PHILOSOPHY?”” University of Connecticut Philosophy Department. N.p., n.d. Web. 12 Aug. 2013.