I’m an English major. For some, this evokes the image of someone blind to the realities of the job market or someone who has deliberately chosen to ignore them. For others, it might represent unflinching optimism. For still others – namely, my parents – it’s a phase one might go through before deciding to attend law school. For me, it changes every day. Some days, when I refuse to read the front page of the newspaper and flip to the comics instead, it’s the first one. Sometimes – when I decide for a day or two to quit telling people I’m going to teach and instead say that I intend to become a famous novelist – it’s the second one. And sometimes I really do consider going to law school, usually when I can’t ignore the fact that my brother, an engineer who’s still in grad school, is making more money than I will when I get my PhD. As I told my fellow English major boyfriend the other day, “You’re going to be a hobo. We’re all going to be hobos.”
I’m your typical English major, and I read pretty much constantly. Right now, I’m reading Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich. It’s meant to impress upon me that people without college degrees, family connections or guaranteed retirement have an excruciating time getting by, compared to people who have these things naturally. I already knew, though. I’m a first-generation college student from a blue-collar family. Instead, it serves to remind me that, even though my mother and father didn’t have the kind of jump-starts that I did – parents who sacrificed so that their children could get into good colleges and stay there – I still might not end up doing better than they did.
This is the essential paradox of a liberal arts major from a working-class family. On one hand, I want to do better economically than my parents – something they’ve impressed upon me as essential and something with which an English degree might not help me. On the other hand, I want to do a job that I enjoy. I can’t get behind the idea that I have to be bored to be successful – in other words, that doing something lucrative is more important than doing something interesting.
Let’s face it: even non-liberal-arts majors are going to have it tough in this economy. We might very well end up being the generation whose parents can’t complain to them that things were harder when they were kids. Even if our parents didn’t go to college, they at least had the booming postwar economy, the prospect of social security, a relatively stable job market – the works. While we’re not facing hardships at the magnitude that their parents suffered – the Depression, the Dust Bowl, the eventual decline of the fedora – we’re still looking at the prospect of being the generation that does worse than our parents did. We’re facing a series of contradictions. More people have college degrees, but a degree no longer guarantees the kind of job it did 30 or 40 years ago. Medical technology is more advanced than ever, but healthcare costs soar.
What does this mean for a liberal arts major? A pessimist might say that, especially in the current climate, we’re doomed to make pennies while those in other fields of study make dollars or at least quarters. An optimist might say much the same thing, but with the caveat that we might end up rediscovering what our careers are supposed to mean to us. Unlike many of our parents, our generation may decide that we don’t define ourselves by our jobs. Instead, we might simply accept the idea that, if no one’s going to give us millions of dollars for the things we do, we might as well enjoy doing them. We’ll figure out that status and riches mean very little if you’re stuck doing something you dislike all day. In the long run, we might end up poorer and happier than the ones who went after the pot of gold. At the very least, we’ll be able to give a few good speeches to our grandchildren: “Why, when I was your age, there was no market for 500- to 800-word essays on the symbolism of Rocinante in Don Quixote …”
Andrew Triska ’11 is from Estacada, Ore. He lives in Lehman.