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Saturday, June 17, 2006

deserving of its own post

To weigh in on the argument I inadvertently started down there, humanities versus math/science, I of course view it to be a false and absurd choice, obviously, we need both, and there are different levels of aptitude and interest in them. But I quite understand why Michelle is sensitive on the topic. Because I'm probably much, much more sensitive on the topic. You see, all my life, I've been terrible at a lot of things, most things really, and I've always thought of myself, fundamentally, as very stupid. I'm very puzzled by the physical world and people laugh at me for it. I always did very badly in scholastic pursuits, pretty much from kindergarten on, my oldest friend and occasional web correspondent Anna mentioned how hard it was for me to color inside the lines...Actual neurologists from Loyola University Chicago examined my brain when I was in junior high and concluded that significant portions of it (like the parts that are in charge of higher math as well as very simple spatial and motor functions) don't work very well at all. So if I don't understand math and science (as well as a lot of much simpler things) it's not because I'm not interested or willing to work hard, it's because I have a built in barrier. So where does that leave me? Well, the humanities I suppose.

But in the preceding, I don't mean to give credence to the notion that the humanities are of less value. I like all of the people who flamed each other down there, except Pocket, whom I don't know from Adam, and they all have good points. Cavinicus points out that it is far easier to go through the motions of undergraduate humanities studies and come out with a degree than it is to do the equivalent with the sciences. Everyone knows that, the fallacy is that everyone who goes through that curriculum does. Michelle is proof of that, as she did in fact turn her English degree into a profession. I absolutely do not repudiate my English degree, I mostly loved earning it, although I really wish I'd double majored in Poli Sci, which I almost did, and would have come in handy when I discovered Barack before virtually anyone else in the world did. Maybe I would have gotten a job, that would have been pretty sweet.

I think Twinters actually had the wisest comment here, universites are about education, not vocation. That's how they began, you know, when professors were monks, and I think we can all agree that everything went downhill from there. It seems very American to turn education into a commodity, and since the rest of the world is emulating America these days (China and India want two cars in every garage) they're all seeing what learning can do for them in terms of profit generation. Understandable, but there's something very sad about that. I sometimes wish I'd gone to college prior to World War II, when it really was understood as a tool for creating cultivated young people (albeit mostly rich, white male young people) and it wasn't considered a tool of socioeconomic advancement for virtually every middle class yokel, most of whom honestly don't belong in a higher education setting, not that most of those upper class twits did either.

The real question for me, is "Did the English degree help me as a writer"? And the answer is that of course it did, because it allowed me to spend much of my time doing what's probably the most important thing for a writer to do, reading things. Although one can go much too far in that direction, the sage Kurt Vonnegut counseled against too many writers being English majors because "I find it tremendously refreshing when a young writer has something on his mind other than the history of literature so far. Literature should not disappear up it's own asshole so to speak." I think that quote partially inspired my friend Marc to get not one but two other degrees to supplement his English degree. Not because of supposed economic advantages, but because Vonnegut is very smart. And I would have double majored in poli sci...if I'd gotten around to it.

Anyway, on the more romantic side of the quotation game, Robin Williams' character in Dead Poets Society said "Law, medicine, business, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life, but poetry, beauty, music...these are the things that we stay alive *for*!"

I don't think much can be added to that.

Oh, but I would like to say it's occasionally embarrassing to have professional editors reading this thing, I do dash it off pretty carelessly, and sometimes I'll find clauses that make virtually no sense, like:

"Every now and then, I find myself writing something highly questionable on this website and it then the whole phenomenon of corporate HR Departments googling people"


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Replies: 6 comments

No, fuck all of you.

I'm actually not convinced that anyone was displaying any "indignation" that the world wasn't valuing English majors. I think the sequence of events went roughly something like this: I saw that speech advocating that employers hire more of them and I thought, motivated largely by self interest, "Why, that's a capital idea."

I was not crying out "O why have I been forsaken by God and man and my uncommon genius left to lie fallow in this rotting field"? (Although I'm more than capable of doing that on occasion) but I think Seamus may have interpreted the post thusly and illustrated some of the (rather obviously true) reasons why top of the line jobs don't typically go to fresh out of college humanities degree holders. Although, interestingly enough, he made no effort to refute any of Mr. Schrum's points. Instead, Seamus's thesis (which again I don't disagree with) is that people who took degrees in other disciplines, the physical sciences what have you, have proven their work ethic by mastering very difficult material, whereas it's much easier for an English major to simply slide by.

Michelle jumped in immediately to assert that it *did* in fact take a great deal of work to earn her English degree and that she was putting it to good use. No indignation about the "world" not valuing English majors, only, perhaps Seamus. I do think Michelle was testier than necessary, the black eyeliner/self loathing bit was kind of a non sequiter, but then Pocket, I thought you were fairly mean in response, and Michelle *is* a mate of mine, but I've been less defensive than I'm capable of being, *trust* me.

What both you gentlemen have been doing is attacking a straw man, (they do teach you about those type of arguments in law school, right?) that either Michelle or I have been whining about not getting riches conferred upon us immediately upon graduation from our humanities curricula. Neither of us have done that (especially not Michelle, I *was* admittedly bemoaning my currently low wages) You keep trying to explain the reasons for that but *neither of us is disagreeing with you* about those. The only thing we're disagreeing with is the relative amount of work that *some individuals* put into their humanities educations.

Anyway, while I've enjoyed the sparring, I say we should all agree to be mates here...

Damn it, I didn't mean to piss anyone off that much -- I was just trying to go with the milieu. I whole-heartedly agree with Seamus's points. For what it's worth, though, I gave up a job that society values and pays well for, simply to return to school and study and teach the liberal arts.

That said, however, I realize that being an adult requires compromise. Not everyone thinks English (or history) is important. That's fine. I think that they're missing out on a lot of fascinating books and issues, but we are all, as human beings, fallible. I'm sure that physicists and chemists and statisticians think that my interest in early American history is a waste of time. As an adult, I'm willing to live with the consequences that my future job isn't valued much by society. I'll make less money, and probably have to live an town not of my choosing. What bugged me about some of the earlier posts was a sense of moral indignation that the world didn't properly value English majors. Maybe it does, maybe it doesn't.

As Cavinicus said, we're both pretty practical. You have to choose what windmills to tilt at. If you're upset about people not valuing literature, don't waste your time trying to change society, but rather try to change a single person. Recommend a good book to someone who doesn't read often, or tutor a kid who struggles for school. When you tackle managable tasks, as opposed to the Quixotic, you'll find that the difference you make is, in a pervese sort of way, much greater.

Sounds grand, but to defend myself from charges that I said something repugnant, I thought I made it fairly clear that my "nostalgia" for elitism was fairly ironic, looking back, I can see that it's not actually all that clear. I *do* believe in learning for learning's sake, but I don't actually think that learning should be denied to anyone because of the circumstances of their birth. Hardly anyone in the modern world actually believes that. Hey, I never would have gotten far in those more elitist days, being the Irish descended son of a carpenter. Like Jesus. (Ask anyone in Ireland, Jesus was indeed Irish)

Moreover, sir, I'm far from a supporter of some sort of radical tyranny based on "intellect", if you read the first part of my post you'll see that I hardly consider myself to be Nietzsche's Superman or anything. I'm a strong believer in people using their talents for the benefit of their fellows. What education I have, long before I stepped into my first public university, comes from my father and from the good people at the Roman Catholic Church, two forces that have frequently been at odds, but who have fundamentally agreed on the principles of hard work and altruism. To whom much is given, much is expected.

I don't think I missed your point about the employability of people with humanities degrees, I understood it the first time, it's just that there are tangents to go off on.

What got Michelle's goat, I think, was an implication that, first, you don't have to work hard to get an English degree, which may well be true, (and is part of the employer calculus to which you refer) but it should not be extrapolated from that that *no one* works hard to get an English degree. Also, some people do in fact, use their degrees to enter a profession to which that degree directly applied. For example...editors.

Oh, yeah, Pocket Hercules! I remember now.

My original point (which seems to have been consistently missed here, a fact that makes me question my ability to clearly express myself) is that fresh college graduates with English (or any liberal arts discipline) degrees(like the ones Jack Schrum begs employers to consider) are riskier hires because (a) they have no practical training for any technologically-oriented work and (b) the very nature of their degree, and the lack of consistency of liberal arts programs among colleges, does not give a potential employer enough information about a new graduate's actual ability to justify making an investment in them over somebody who was either trained for duties of the position or had decent grades in a major where bullshit simply cannot fly. Michelle's interpretation of my reasoning as a disparagement of liberal arts majors is simply a mistake on her part, and Theresa and Rory are responding to an inaccurate conclusion regarding my opinion. To become people in positions of power, liberal arts majors have to "put in the time," which usually starts with them having to prove themselves at a shitty job that may pay only $11.00 an hour. If they do well at said shitty job, they move on to a slightly less shitty job, and so on and so forth, and eventually they will be a C.E.O. Of course, if they instead perform poorly at some point, they fail to rise any further, which is really as it should be. Technical majors, on the other hand, are generally hired to do something specific that they were trained to do. While it makes them immediately employable, it also limits them to employment in a specific field and (more often than not) excludes them from management ranks altogether. It's part of the trade-offs we make in life.

That being said, Rory, I must respectfully submit that I find your nostalgia for the elitist, exclusive higher educations system of yore to be somewhat repugnant. To begin, you can certainly still find that sort of attitude today - it's pervasive throughout most of the Ivy League schools, and even mid-range private schools with high tuition (like Boston College, where I was a humble scholarship student) have a fair share of students who seem to feel that actually working or making a contribution to society are tasks reserved for the lower classes. While I mean no disrespect, if you wanted to seek out pointless elitism in college and avoid a place where one's education might be viewed in light of how one could be a practical asset to society, the University of Illinois was probably not the best choice. Cornell or Brown would probably have treated you well - I know a lot of completely useless fuckers who went to both of those schools and like to sit around feeding each other's egos.

Finally, I recently made a point to Theresa about how I believe that simply being smart doesn't make one more noble or really any better than anybody else, and thinking that it does is, for want of a better term, intellectual bigotry. For example, take the sentence, "Jobs should always go to the smartest people," and replace "smartest" with "whitest." Being smart is a lucky genetic blessing you were given, but if you simply use it to bemoan how nobody will pay you a lot of money to sit around and make snarky comments, I am forced to judge you much more harshly than I judge the stupid guy who works twelve-hour days to feed his family. That guy's doing the best he can with what he was given, and he gets my respect.

Incidentally, Pocket is a friend of mine (you can see him in the barbecue pictures) who went to Brandeis and Northwestern Law, and is going back to school soon to become a history professor. I showed him the discussion because he and I are, at heart, infinitely practical men, and I thought he'd find Michelle's original rant amusing. I'm a little disappointed that he countered her ad hominem attack on my character with one of his own (I do prefer the moral high ground sometimes), but he's a bit of an instigator and I can't honestly fault him for taking such an easy shot. You guys actually live near each other - maybe a beer at Simon's some Saturday is in order.

Thank you, Rory. Now I feel less pressured to respond myself. Which I'm not going to do because baby's going on vacation to someplace even HOTTER than Chicago is right now. See you when I'm tan.

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