The "Prairie Home Companion" jokes about English majors are based on faulty assumptions about the job market, and should stop, writes Robert Matz.
After yet another joke on "A Prairie Home Companion" about an English major who studies Dickens and ends up at a fast-food restaurant frying chickens, I couldn’t take it anymore. I had to write.
You and I go way back. I started listening to you during my undergraduate years as an English major in the mid-'80s and continued while in graduate school in English literature, when making a nice dinner and listening to "Prairie Home" was my Saturday night ritual. I get that you’re joking. I get the whole Midwesterner take down of — and fascination with — cultural sophistication that animates your show. I get that you yourself were an English major. And I get affectionate irony.
I’m afraid, however, that jokes about bitter and unemployed English majors that are already unfortunate in an economy humming along at 4.5 percent unemployment are downright damaging when the unemployment rate is near 8 percent — and some governors, in the name of jobs, are calling for liberal arts heads. Likewise, the most recent annual nationwide survey of the attitudes of college freshmen reported an all-time high in the number of students who said that "to be able to get a better job" (87.9 percent) and "to be able to make more money" (74.6 percent) were "very important" reasons to go to college. Not surprisingly, the same survey reported that the most popular majors were the most directly vocational: business, the health professions, and engineering (biology was also among the most popular).
The truth, however, is that reports of the deadliness of English to a successful career are greatly exaggerated. According to one major study produced by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, the median income for English majors with a bachelor’s but no additional degree is $48,000. This figure is just slightly lower than that for bachelor’s degree holders in biology ($50,000), and slightly higher than for those in molecular biology or physiology (both $45,000). It’s the same for students who received their bachelor’s in public policy or criminology (both $48,000), slightly lower than for those who received their bachelor’s in criminal justice and fire protection ($50,000) and slightly higher than for those who received it in psychology ($45,000).
Another study by the same center paints a similar picture with respect to unemployment. In this study, the average unemployment rate for recent B.A. holders (ages 22-26) over the years 2009-10 was 8.9 percent; for English it was 9.2 percent. Both rates are higher than we would wish, but their marginal difference is dwarfed by that between the average for holders of the B.A. and that of high school graduates, whose unemployment rate during the same period was 22.9 percent (also too high).
Of course, majors in engineering and technology, health, and business often have higher salary averages, between $60,000 (for general business) and $120,000 (for petroleum engineering) and marginally lower unemployment rates, especially for newly minted B.A.s. But there’s nothing reckless about majoring in English compared to many other popular majors. Students who love business or engineering, or who are good at them and simply want to earn the highest possible income, make reasonable choices to pursue study in these fields. But students who want to major in English and are good at it should not believe that they are sacrificing a livelihood to pursue their loves. And students who don’t love what they are learning are less likely to be successful.
Because this kind of information is readily available, it makes me wonder why you, Garrison — and you’re not alone — continue to dump on English as a major. I think it must be because in the world of Lake Wobegon the English major has cultural pretensions that need to be punished with loneliness and unemployment. Likewise, the Midwesterner in you can’t believe that anyone who gets to do these things that you yourself love so much — revel in the pleasures of language and stories — could also be rewarded with a decent job.
Garrison, when it comes to English majors, let your inner Midwesterner go. You can study English and not be a snob. And you can study English and not fail in the world. I know you know these things; you’ve lived them. So my plea to you, Garrison, is this. Your "Writer’s Almanac" does a terrific job promoting the love of language and the study of English. But in my media market it plays at 6:35 am. Even where it gets better play, it has nowhere near the prominence of "A Prairie Home Companion." Can you find a way on the latter to tell stories about English majors that don’t involve failure? These stories would make a fresh alternative on your show to a joke way past its sell-by date. And they might make a few parents less likely to discourage their kids from studying English.
And here’s my final plea to all former English majors. "A Prairie Home Companion" can help, but English also needs its "CSI" or "Numb3rs." I know some of you are out there now writing for television and film. I admit it will take some creative chops to develop stories about English study that are as glamorous and engaging as crime drama. But you were an English major. I know you can do it. And it’s time to pay it forward.
Chair, English Department
George Mason University
P.S. to all former English majors: Since writing this letter I’ve learned about a new Fox TV show called "The Following" that features an English professor. He’s a serial killer who inspires others to kill. Maybe next time the English professor could be the hero? Thanks.
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