I was waiting at the package center when I heard a guy in line talking loudly with his friend. He was saying, “Whenever I find out someone’s a humanities major, I always ask, ‘Can I get fries with that?’” The other guy started laughing, and I was tempted to chime in with, “Have you heard about our combo meal?” But I wasn’t rattled enough to pick a fight (considering that the pleasant pair might be my company for the afternoon, package lines being what they are). I would like to say, in solidarity with the other humanities majors out there, that I was appalled. But I wasn’t. Our breed is accustomed to snide remarks about our uselessness. We have just as many retorts: big and small, political and personal, snide and earnest.
One of the snidest I’ve heard was actually a Columbia professor giving a prospie’s mom a smackdown. (I’m kicking myself because I can’t remember his name.) It was during Days on Campus, and he was lecturing on the importance of the Core Curriculum, when a mom raised her hand and said something to the extent of, “So many of the jobs right now have to do with technology, computer skills, math, and science, so why do you waste so much of the students’ time on literature and philosophy, when they could be doing things that are, you know, useful?” His answer still puts a spring in my step. The Core lecturer explained the hierarchy of roles within Plato’s Republic: the philosopher king characterized by his wisdom, the caste of guardians remarkable for their loyalty and honor, and, at the bottom, the class of private producers, governed by their lowly appetites. He hardly needed to say to which caste he thought she belonged.
One of our favorite ways to respond to allegations of uselessness is that we have been called to something higher. We have been summoned, we say, like witches, genies, and zealots, by forces beyond our control. We have been singled out. Instead of joining the class of swindling merchants, we will—we will become guardians! This explanation is too rich for most people’s blood. The watered-down version is that we’re not thinking about jobs and practicality; we’re just following our passion by studying the subjects that make us feel alive. The even more moderate among us will say, “Humanities majors teach us how to think, and the ways of thinking we learn are applicable to careers in law, business—anything you can imagine!” Then there is the most watered-down and conciliatory of all: the idea that we are humanities majors intentionally to prepare ourselves for the work world. “More top CEOs majored in English than anything else,” we might say. “Just look at Hewlett-Packard, Walt Disney—and the rest of the Fortune 500 list!”
How we choose to answer the question, “Can I get fries with that?” (which is really an accusation of wastefulness, the ultimate capitalist crime) is not as important as the question itself. More interesting than our range of prepared answers is the culture of fear so entrenched that the question is not only accepted, but anticipated. How many of us are familiar with the particular statistics that correlate college majors to future rates of employment or salary? Not many. And yet, how many of us “know” which majors win us jobs, and which station us behind the deep-fryer at McDonald’s?
The culture of fear is a self-perpetuating rumor-mill, and often, it exists in a void without numbers, without data, without any of the “reasonable” measures that should be these self-declared pragmatists’ bread and butter. When statistics are available, do they apply to graduates with Ivy League-quality humanities degrees? If the statistics do apply to sought-after, high-quality degrees, do they apply to me or to you, to the individual with passion and talent she believes to be unique? Do they apply to the job market 30, 20, or even 10 years down the road? It’s hard for even an enthusiast of popular statistics to say for sure.
Georgetown University published a study by its Center on Education and the Workforce that breaks down unemployment and earnings rates in terms of undergraduate major for colleges and universities nationwide. Architecture is the major with the highest unemployment rate, at 13.9 percent. History, fine arts, and photography make the top-10 list, but so do graphic design, information systems, and economics, with 9.4 percent of majors unemployed. English doesn’t even make the list. Are these statistics reliable, and, more importantly, are they meaningful to us? Who knows! (The numbers change so often that going with your gut might be the more rational option.) But for what it’s worth, the Georgetown study has been widely accepted—its numbers come from the trusted U.S. Census Bureau.
When the next guy asks us for a history burger and English fries, there is no need to get defensive. I know better than to imagine myself as the humanities’ chosen apologist. Instead of anticipating skepticism about our majors or taking up arms against the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, the best approach is to dispel the mythology of fear, simply by refusing to take it seriously. Next time I’ll respond, perplexed, “Fries? I’m sorry, I don’t have any.”
Amanda Gutterman is a Columbia College senior majoring in English. Senior Citizen, Junior Employee runs alternate Tuesdays.
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