Defending the poetry major

Photo by Annie Abdalla

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Pity the poor poetry major, long treated with snotty sarcasm as a head-in-the-clouds idealist. “What will you do with that degree?” people ask, shaking their heads at the scholar’s naivete.

Okay, few people dispute that the economy is tough right now. Tough for experienced employees, tough for many small business owners, tough for newly-minted college graduates. I know this first-hand, and I deal most often with the youngest age group I’ve mentioned—undergraduates.

There are hundreds of articles, blogs, and opinion pieces offering tips to students or bemoaning the price of a college degree (and I grant you, the cost is appalling) or telling undergraduates that they need to specialize in certain career areas. The New York Times, for example, ran this article, which warns students away from majoring in such coursework as history, philosophy, and poetry.

Another pop-journalism site suggests that graduates learn “to put your useless degree to use.” Although there are some reasonable, general ideas here, these brief tip-sheets operate under the unlikely premise that we can tell today’s 18-year-old what he or she will need to know in order to be securely employed in, say, 2045.

Mild contrarian that I am, I defend the poetry major. Students have to be diligent to achieve good grades in the poetry track, diligence being just as necessary there as in the so-called hard sciences, which also require analysis (they use more math but require similarly solid logic chops). Poetry is difficult to study; the subject requires keen reading comprehension skills, a good foundation in rhetoric, the ability to analyze, to communicate, and to connect diverse disciplines, cultures, and texts. The same goes for history and philosophy: these are truly challenging areas of study, not good choices for the slacker or the faint of heart.

The people who choose the humanities majors are often accused of living in ivory towers, but that’s a stereotype. Most of them don’t end up in academia. Some of them are entrepreneurs, some are lawyers, some are doctors. Poetry major Ross Martin became a Viacom executive; though that is probably not a terribly common career outcome for poetry folk, humanities majors in general end up in some form of management position 20% of the time, according to research by Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce.

For a look at the career outcomes, percent employed full-time or part-time, and job earnings for humanities majors, see:

(Link to GU’s CEW on Humanities degree earners)

Yes, it is true that in terms of earnings, the poetry major or history major is unlikely to outperform the person who has a Petroleum Engineering degree. I have to ask, however, given the limited supply of petroleum we’re told exists on earth, where those petroleum engineers will find work in 2045. And job satisfaction—earning enough to get by and feeling satisfied with one’s work and contributions to society—is, while less easily measurable, a byproduct of an excellent education that keeps minds sharp, hearts engaged, and communities intact over the long haul—including during tough times.

The world and technology move rapidly. I typed my undergraduate papers on a manual typewriter and, graduating during the hideous recession of 1979, got jobs that paid like menial labor but allowed me to sit at desks and utilize my spelling, vocabulary, and arts analysis skills, which led to jobs in typesetting that taught me computer skills back in…well, let’s just say “8-inch floppy disk” and leave it at that. Did I have any idea I would be blogging on the cloud using a PC in 2012? No. Have I been able to learn new things by using logic, persistence, research, and creative thinking? Why, yes. Thank you, humanities coursework.

Critics of many stripes claim colleges need to focus more on career development through the creation of specialist tracks. Careerism is a fine concept for a capitalist society, and I have no problem with offering better certification programs for specialists of all kinds; but careerism per se is not what a college education is “for.” A college education serves, when it is effective, to broaden a person’s experiences, deepen a person’s thoughts, and to develop in that person a versatile range of essential critical-thinking and problem-solving skills. Those skills are applicable to many jobs. An excellent gaming programmer I’m acquainted with says his two years of intensive philosophy and literature study helped him enormously when he switched to the technology track: it’s all logic and analysis, and creative thinking is what allows a programmer to excel beyond data-managing. Here’s an article that explains a bit more about the usefulness of the liberal arts education as it pertains to business.

When the job market is tight, we need problem solvers and creative, critical thinkers. It will not matter what these people majored in as undergraduates; what will matter is how flexible they are at responding to the changes around them…or at instituting changes themselves.

Poetry majors can do that for us.

Really.