By: Revanche

Just say no to humanities?

January 14, 2010

Daily exercise update: About 15-20 minutes of brisk walking, skipped the weights.


Back in 1998, I sat down for a career chat with my history teacher.  Thinking he’d have some insight, and privately perhaps even be flattered, I asked what he thought of my majoring in history.

He laughed. 

It probably wasn’t that I was bad at the subject, though in hindsight, I certainly lacked that spark of brilliance you associate with the historians with a scent for the stories behind every door.  It was that, as he baldly stated, unless I wanted to teach high school level or below, or was prepared to make very little money for the kind of education I’d need to pursue a Ph.D. and then have to fight and scrabble for years in academia for the scraps towards a tenured position — it’s not worth it.

As a Native American, he said, he had the benefit of the Indian scholarships for college and his graduate degree. Without that, he would have been deeply in debt and doubtlessly would have had to make more than a few compromises in terms of lifestyle and career choices.  He wasn’t living in high style by any means, but he and his family were comfortable because his education had been paid for and he had more freedom to choose from good programs without concern about repaying undergraduate debt.

Nice circumstances that we can’t all replicate of course, but that’s not the point.  The point is that that’s the first and only time I ever encountered a teacher specifically counseling for or against a particular course of action by taking into consideration the real life circumstances. 

No generic platitudes or pie in the sky rationalizations that vaguely assure you that people will retire and hand over their cush jobs for me.  Just the truth, thanks. 

This article in the Chronicle of Higher Education (via Moneyapolis) with its handy list of financial qualifications for pursuers of higher education in the humanities further supports my eventual decision not to take a Masters in English Literature or some other liberal arts program.

Personally, I’m grateful. At that point a reality check was no bad medicine because it got me thinking about practical things like making a living and sustainable professions.  Not a bad seed to plant in a 16 year old’s mind.

Ten years later, everyone remembers him as the loud and mean history teacher, I remember him as the guy who reminded me that once you get out of school, you’re in the real world with consequences and bills.

6 Responses to “Just say no to humanities?”

  1. Mrs. Micah says:

    Sounds like a helpful guy. I’m doing library school because it’s a professional program and it’s the only way to get most librarian jobs. I hope to get scholarships & fellowships, but even if I have to pay part/all of my way, it’ll be worthwhile for the new skills I learn and the new doors it opens up.

    When I was in college I thought about doing a Master’s in something else as well, and that can work for a specialty librarian. But I think I’m going to hold off on putting in the time and money unless I’m sure that I want to specialize in some area.

  2. mOOm says:

    As far as undergrad degrees in humanities go in the US context I think they are for the following categories/situations. The first couple you’ve covered:

    1. Preparation for a PhD in the field and eventually becoming an academic, which is a particularly difficult course in the US because of the level of competition in the humanities compared to other fields.

    2. Preparation for teaching high school.

    3. Done as a preparatory program for a law degree.

    4. If you can get into a top college like Yale or Harvard etc. to do it it might be OK as general career preparation where the college name/connections is more important than your field.

    5. You’re rich and have connections and can enjoy studying for its own sake.

    As far as doing a masters in English Lit only 1 and 5 are going to make sense I think…

  3. The point is that that’s the first and only time I ever encountered a teacher specifically counseling for or against a particular course of action by taking into consideration the real life circumstances.

    I love it….
    Lucky you for having a teacher that kept it real. I am a high school teacher and everyone pushes these kids to go to a 4 year school right away and pursue their dreams and then tells them they will be set for life! There is no regard to cost of schooling compared to future earnings, considering a community college first, etc. Give me a break, I believe every student should pursue a line of work they love and can thrive at but they need to be realistic. The student loans come back to haunt you and a degree doesn’t guarantee success.

  4. Teaching in the humanities at the college level is a wonderful job–if you can get one and if you get tenure.

    Very few college degrees “qualify” you for a job–engineering and nursing come to mind.

    Humanities degrees are the bet prep for law school and don’t preclude med school admission (may even enhance it) AS LONG AS YOU take the very few prereqs–e.g. organic chemistry.

    Masters programs are often forgive me) bs, but are big money-makers for universities.

    It occurs to me, though, that a Masters degree can be qualification for teaching in a community college–this is a growth area. And a Masters takes about 1/4-1/5 the time of a doctorate.

    Your crabby teacher is a member of a protected minority–which is a help in getting college teaching positions.

    This is a very complex issue…hard to make a dent in it.

  5. Well… If you’d asked me, I’d also have told you not to do what I have done / In the House of the Rising Sun.

    A Ph.D. in English (mine) or history (proposed yours?) is a sure way to make yourself unemployable. It doesn’t actually quite do THAT, but you have to be highly entrepreneurial and creative to find jobs outside of academe.

    And after 26 years in the ivied halls, if I may be quite frank: to get a decently paid academic job in the humanities, you need to be a member of a minority group. Applicants of color get de facto preference even when a department is not doing a targeted search. All of which is just ducky until you get the assistant professorship, when you will find yourself in huge demand because every committee from the task force for janitorial excellence to the search committee for the new provost wants a minority member. Because you’re fighting for tenure, you will accept every committee assignment that comes your way, damn near killing yourself with overwork in return for, shall we say, very little gratitude.

    Now, an undergraduate degree can prepare you nicely for professional programs in law, business, journalism (another route to penury), psychology, public administration, educational administration, and government.

    I strongly recommend undergraduate degrees in the humanities. But any day, I’d advise a young person who wants a Ph.D. and an academic career to look at programs in business, accountancy, public administration, and law, where junior faculty come in at higher pay and where many more job openings exist.

  6. Revanche says:

    @Mrs.Micah: I DID go on to take an English major in undergrad, but the advice was applied to my lofty ideas of a graduate degree – nay.

    Since I couldn’t make a strong case for the graduate degree and a clear path to how it could be used professionally, I opted against it.

    @mOOm: The English BA was useful, but taking a Master’s with zero intention of teaching or pursuing further education and no money to my name would have been a terrible idea.

    @lifeandfinances: That was really my point. Though I chose to take his advice with regards to Humanities and grad school, it was a good choice for undergrad. But without having heard that advice early enough, it wouldn’t have sunk in as a consideration when trying to figure out what the next step was as a junior in college. I’m a slow learner. 😉

    @Frugal Scholar: You’re quite right that this is a complex issue, I did treat it rather superficially here because I think Funny about Money has already done an outstanding job in covering the BS-ness of the Masters in Humanities. I really should have linked to it.

    Regardless, I’m not of the teaching bent at this point in my life (and definitely wasn’t ten years ago). I don’t have classroom presence, and haven’t learned to overcome my hatred of public speaking. I’ve seen teachers with those handicaps in the classroom and seen how they lost their audience from day one. If I couldn’t be good at it, I didn’t want to teach.

    @Funny about Money: That’s very much what I took away from our chat. But you’re much more eloquent than he was. 🙂

    I’m glad to hear some verification of his advice now, for some years afterward I wondered if he had painted a particularly bleak image simply to discourage me.

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