A royal pain

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Once upon a time there was a girl who excelled at her studies. She graduated third in her high school class, and she still holds the school’s record for the highest SAT scores (a test she took while still a sophomore). In college she triple-majored and graduated summa cum laude. By age twenty-four the had her master’s degree in library science. But at age thirty, she struggled to find a job, either in her career or in some other profession. This dire condition was surely the result of a curse from a wicked witch. Fortunately a magic fairy prince came along and whisked the girl away in his enchanted flying-unicorn-powered carriage, and now she lives in a marzipan castle and gnaws on the door frames whenever she feels peckish. The End.

This story is at least partly true. Scout’s honor.

Not to beat a dead flying unicorn, but the job thing has been on my mind a lot lately. Presumably it has been on the minds of the folks comprising the 9% unemployment rate, too. At least I still have decent income and health benefits. There are other people who need a magic fairy prince more than I do. Granted, I am planning to switch to a job with indecent income (see my previous post for details),  but I’ll still have health benefits and enough money to live on, at least for a while.

Nothing like a bit of mortal uncertainty to get the blood flowing.

Still though. Jobs. I did the right things in school, college, and grad school. I have distinguished myself in my profession. Because of the magic fairy prince, it is strongly indicated that I in fact have royal blood.

What’s the problem, then? I can assign blame to the general economy, and I know I’m limiting myself by refusing to move to a major metropolitan area, but my favorite whipping boy is my Bachelor of Arts undergraduate degree. It was supposed to alert employers to my broad education and my suitability for most types of professional work. It has not quite lived up to my expectations.

The Liberal Arts: What Is Their Value?

The Liberal Arts and Humanities are the cornerstone of higher education in America. As opposed to the career-specific skills taught in the general sciences, the performing arts, and the technical sciences, skills learned in the liberal arts are more abstract. Critical thinking and reasoning, the logic goes, are skills that will prepare students for a wide variety of jobs.
Assignment: read this speech by David Foster Wallace, may he rest in peace. Informed by his remarks, argue for or against the value of a traditional Liberal Arts education. Use examples where appropriate. For extra credit, students may choose to argue both for and against, though their arguments should be presented in two separate essays.

Pro:

Okay, so, I loved being a student. Loved it. I’ve never had any particular urge to be a professor, and I shied away from an academic career, knowing that the politics of tenure and the cut-throat competitiveness would disillusion me, but I just loved being a student. I gobbled up as many different courses as I could. I didn’t want to limit myself to a narrow slice of education (which, incidentally, contributed to my discontinued studies as a music major; too much music, not enough everything else). Learning for the sake of learning is awesome. I even liked writing academic papers.

But enough about me. When I look at some of my fellow Americans, I really want to force-feed some education to them. If they’d been exposed to the lessons of the liberal arts, maybe they wouldn’t be so ignorant.

I don’t mean to imply that one must have a liberal arts degree to become well-informed. A formal college curriculum can make the process easier, but anyone with a thirst for learning can read the same books I read when I was in college, can keep themselves informed of current events, can develop their own ethical, moral, and practical matrices for understanding the world.

But. Look. There are a LOT of people in America (particularly in America) who do not understand that global warming is real, or that evolution is legitimate, or that people of other backgrounds deserve the same human dignity that they do. They are ignorant of current events, to say nothing of history. They do not possess the acumen to form their own unique opinions, and rely instead on the oftentimes biased opinions touted by politicians, religious leaders, and television commentators.

A liberal arts education is no guarantee that a person will develop his or her own higher-thinking skills, but it sure can help.

Con:

What the hell. I’ve even got a master’s degree on top of my bachelor’s, and I’m still struggling. Fat lot of good that BA is doing me now.

An education in the liberal arts is supposed to teach critical thinking skills, right? Do you have any idea how insulting that is? I already knew how to think critically before I entered college, thanks very much. The stuff I learned was great, don’t get me wrong, but I was a reasonable and intelligent human being prior to ever setting foot on campus.

But whatever. My liberal arts degree is supposed to show employers that I have a broad education and that I had the chops to make it through four years of school. If they want to take it as proof that I learned how to think in college, I will not quibble with them.

Maybe in a better economy, employers really do prefer these skills. My degree offers assurance that I am capable of learning and of doing hard work; the employers will need to train me for a specific job when I’m first hired, but after that, it will be smooth sailing.

But have you looked at the jobs board lately? I’m still trying to get a job in libraries, mind you– that’s what the master’s degree is supposed to be helping out with– but I’ve kept my eye out for jobs in other fields. Even entry-level work would be fine. The job ads I’m seeing, though, either require previous work experience in the field, or they require a degree that is NOT IN THE LIBERAL ARTS.

Here’s an example: I’m a big fan of food. I eat the stuff every day. With my growing consciousness of food politics and climate change (a consciousness acquired in part from my liberal education) I’ve been following job ads in the areas of sustainable agriculture, land management, and organic farming. The positions I see tend not to offer a living wage or, God help me, they’re advertising for full-time volunteer labor. That, or they require a bachelor’s of science degree.

Now, like I said, I’m capable of learning and I’m willing to do hard work. But why would an employer even bother to look at my resume, when a BS is a requirement? They’ve got tons of people with that degree applying for their open positions as it is.

It is past midnight and I’ve suddenly got this humongous pumpkin in my apartment. No idea where that thing came from. Gonna have to go deal with that now.

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