Monday, June 24, 2013

English Majors

It's such a shame that the term "English Major" has come to imply "unemployability" in our modern, capitalist society.

I read somewhere that a degree in the humanities almost guarantees your ticket to a long and rewarding career as a Starbucks barrista.   Perhaps this is true, but it imposes an artificial perspective that a degree is only useful as a means to employment.  I think a much better perspective is that an education enriches your life in many ways; the prospect of employment is only one of them.

The New York Times ran a great piece today defending the value of an English degree.  The author focuses on the development of clear thinking and written expression as a core benefit.  I have to agree.  As a hiring manager, I rule out more candidates for poor writing and unfocused thought than for any other reason.  Were I graduating today with a degree in the humanities, I would be sure to emphasize this with prospective employers.  Well-honed communication skills are not going to develop naturally on the job; candidates either developed them as students or they are likely never to have them.

I was thinking about employability yesterday as I observed this guy above, just outside my hotel in Toronto.  He put on a Spock costume, stood in a high pedestrian zone where the ferry boats unload, and hovered around a bucket labeled "donations".  In the time it took me to eat lunch, he must have hauled in a couple hundred dollars.  Nearby, there was a guy in a black suit with red suspenders.  I don't think he looked like a TV character;  his gimmick was that he stood really still.  I think he only made about a hundred bucks during the 20 minutes I watched.

I don't know why I jumble these two topics together.  If I had a degree in English, I could probably offer a lucid explanation of why they are somehow related in my mind.  On the one hand, society doesn't owe anyone anything just because they are educated; everyone must create value in order to get paid.  On the other hand, many employers seem to overlook the value-creating abilities of clear-thinking English majors, which I see as a shame.

Spock caught my attention because his case doesn't fit either of my statements above -- I can't discern what value he is creating, but he is getting paid.

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