My Liberal Arts Degrees
Pat McCrory of North Carolina is the latest governor to question the value of a liberal arts degree. This is the story of how its provided one kind of value (economic) to me.
In 1997, at the age of 27, I washed up at my parents’ house, done with school, and out of money. All I had to my name was and three humanities degrees, (B.A. Rhetoric, M.A. Literature, M.F.A Creative Writing) and a dog.
It was a dark time, both figuratively and literally because my parents had downsized since I’d first gone away for college and the only room for me in the new house was the basement. When I snapped the lights off at night, the blackness was total, roughly reflective of both my spirit and my prospects. In bed, I would wave my hand in front of my face, unable to make out even the faintest image. If you want to take that as a metaphor for my employment prospects, so be it.
I’d worked after college for two years as a paralegal at a very large law firm in Chicago before going back to school. It was…fine, in that it paid a pretty solid wage for someone right out of college, but it was this experience that convinced me to not go to law school.
Other than that, I’d worked the typical summer gigs, camp counselor, pool cleaner, mower of lawns. One summer I worked as a “summer casual” mail handler at the post office. During a graduate school break, I ran a writing workshop for locals out of my apartment.
Honestly, it looked kind of hopeless. I’d considered teaching off the tenure line, but dropped the notion because the pay and prospects seemed dismal. (I was wiser then, I suppose.) I sent resumes to temp agencies specializing in advertising and communications, but I had no portfolio of work to share, so that resulted in a series of “we’ll call you if anything comes ups.” My most marketable skill was error-free typing better than 100 wpm.
Fortunately, I had two assets, my liberal arts education, and my mother.
While my parents were not desperate to remove me from the premises, neither were they thrilled at the thought of an extended to permanent houseguest, especially an unemployed one. Mom got to work through her extensive network, by running into someone at the grocery store and telling him about her “deadbeat son” (probably my words not hers), who had lots of degrees, but no job and was living in her basement.
The person she’d run into was a management consultant, specializing in the retail sector. He also had the occasional gig as a temporary CEO of companies in periods of “turnaround.” He happened to be working on a book project of his management philosophies, and was looking for some ghostwriting help, and my mom volunteered me for the gig.
(She’d done the same thing seven years earlier for the pool cleaning job.)
The task was more interesting than I would’ve figured, translating management speak into plain language and illustrative anecdotes suitable to a more general audience. I realized that I was a reasonably quick study on the concepts, and maybe even had a knack for explaining the ideas. My “client” seemed pleased enough, anyway, and I appreciated the couple hundred bucks the work put in my pocket.
What I appreciated even more was him mentioning me to a friend of his who was president of a marketing research consultancy in Chicago. I do not know the particulars of the conversation, except that fairly quickly I had an interview, and ten days after that, I had a job.
I barely knew what marketing research was when I started working at Leo J. Shapiro & Associates, let alone understand the ins and outs of the business. My first tasks capitalized on my typing and computer skills, editing documents and creating PowerPoint presentations for the advertising testing arm of the company. A good way to learn a lot about something really quickly is to be surrounded by it, so each time I formatted a report, I found myself learning things, like for example that the three key measurements for an effective ad are attention, motivation and brand identification.
As happens in companies, something needed doing and no one else was available to do it, so I ended up taking notes for a focus group, and since I’d taken the notes already, why didn’t I just go ahead and write a summary report of the findings?
I’d never done this before, except that I’d totally done this before, hundreds of times in critical literature papers or fiction workshop critiques. The underlying material was new, but the method was not. My writing skills were good, so my reports passed muster, and by the way, the usual focus group moderator can’t make it, you’ve watched a bunch of these, do you think you could just step in?
Why not? I’d taught freshman English for three years. I know how to get a room of people talking about a single subject.
Also, we know you’re a words guy, but we need someone to work on these reports that involve reams and reams of data, can you handle that?
I wasn’t so sure. Math and I were not friends. I’d sampled a stats class in college and run the opposite direction pretty quickly. But what choice was there? This was a job that allowed me to move out of my parents’ basement. I was now engaged. The stakes had been raised.
And I figured that out too. I learned that numbers tell a story just like people talking in focus groups tell a story. I learned how to manipulate our data tabulation software, which was all DOS-based at that time. I learned about the more than 20 different sectors through which office supplies are sold. I learned about fast food purchasing habits, about how to better motivate people to join health clubs, about the best packaging and signage practices for big box retailers, about the effectiveness of different language choices in privacy notices.
Any interest in jury research? Why not find out?
Turns out I did, and I got a front seat to communication strategy sessions for some of the most significant personal injury cases in Illinois state history. Not bad for an English major.
I was surrounded by people who were smarter and more experienced than me and I learned. And because I was curious an asked a lot of questions, I was pretty good at learning, and therefore was pretty good at my job, managing to amass skills and experiences that had me supervising my own projects inside of three years. If life circumstances hadn’t taken my wife and I from Chicago, I don’t doubt I’d still be working in the field, probably making a heck of a lot more money than I do in my present position. People who started after me, one of whom I had a role in hiring and training are now managing directors in the company.
(I think I just felt a little pride when I wrote that last sentence.)
Because I learned a couple of things about statistics during my time in marketing research, I know that my single anecdotal example is not dispositive in ending the debate over the possible value of a broad-based liberal arts education, except that in my squishy liberal heart, I can’t help but feel that it is.
The recent comments by North Carolina governor Pat McCrory questioning the value of liberal arts degrees (despite having one of his own), and suggesting that his state’s universities should tailor funding to job placement as opposed to “butts in seats,” has ignited the latest proxy battle between liberals and conservatives regarding the appropriate intersection of taxpayer money with public education, with liberals believing that bottom-line minded governors like McCrory or Florida’s Rick Scott, or Texas’ Rick Perry are trying to exact retribution on their ideological foes, and conservatives believing that a little oversight of the runaway “grievance studies” majors is a good thing.
For the record, I am against education that practices ideological indoctrination and would gladly stand with my conservative friends in criticism of such practices. At the same time, in my thirteen years at four different state universities, I’ve witnessed so little actual indoctrination going on, that to condemn the humanistic disciplines because of a handful of outsized and outspoken bad apples is like saying Peyton Manning isn’t a Hall of Famer because he once threw six interceptions in one game.
There is also very little evidence that college makes people more politically liberal.
Anyway, all that is a side issue to the main problem, which is each year there are kids showing up in classrooms and they don’t know what to do. Should they study what they love, or should they be “practical?”
I honestly don’t know what to tell them.
I share my story from above, about how my humanities degrees were excellent preparation for a career in an industry that I didn’t even know existed before I started working in it, but at the same time, I recognize that times have changed, that while I worried about getting started in a job/career, I never really despaired that something would eventually turn up. I’m not sure I can say that to my students today.
I also have to recognize that not everyone goes home to a household where turnaround expert CEOs who think it’s not an outrageous idea to pluck an overeducated, under-experienced kid out of his parents’ basement and give him work to do shop in your local grocery store.
Not everyone goes to work at a company where his supervisors have degrees in political science or the history of art and architecture and so they believe that since you’re a reasonably bright person, you must be capable of figuring things out, even if the degree on your resume isn’t the “right” one.
And of course, not everyone has my mother.
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