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Why I want my kids to major in English

As a college professor for the last 13 years, I have witnessed the simultaneous tumult that has characterized both higher education and the economy for which we as educators are readying our graduates.

When I began teaching in the early 2000s, higher education still served as a bastion of hope for incoming students and their parents, promising prestige, stability and upward mobility. For decades to that point, attending college represented the meritocratic foundation of the American dream.

However, as shifts in the national and global economy drove more students to pursue a college degree, higher education and principally liberal arts institutions slowly began to shift their degree portfolios from career preparation to job preparation.

This, no doubt, was in response to the general skepticism, if not anger, that overcame much of the middle class as a result of the economic crash that began in 2008. Parents and potential students saw not just their home values and retirement plans eroded, but also the faith they once had in the promise of higher education to help the future generation surpass past generations in terms of material success.

Colleges and universities, challenged by headlines asking “Is College Worth It?” and having turned to the business world for guidance in governance and curriculum development over the previous decade, began to craft degree programs responsive to feedback from employers and advertise their institutional superiority based on how many graduates found jobs directly related to their degrees immediately upon graduation.

While this is nothing new and is certainly a necessary message in establishing the value of higher education, particularly given the increasing costs of a college degree, the shift was remarkable because job-specific degrees were once the hallmark of two-year and technical institutions.

Now, however, as colleges and universities that offered baccalaureate degrees began to compete with two-year institutions, degree programs became more specialized. Owing to the necessity to learn job-specific skills and information, exposure to traditional liberal arts courses, such as English, history, philosophy and political science, was relegated to a smattering of introductory level courses for the purposes of meeting state education requirements rather than as part of an integrated and intentional effort to educate, not simply train, the student.

The trajectory that higher education has followed is similar to many other areas of our culture, where there has been an attempt to reverse engineer success by identifying the key features of those we admire and then mimicking them in hopes of similar results.

For example, studies have consistently found that children raised in homes with lots of books, or in which the family eats dinner together every evening, earn better grades and show more long-term intellectual growth and achievement than their peers who do not. As you can imagine, simply buying lots of books and eating dinner together will not improve a child’s SAT score. But parents, mindful of the challenges their children face in achieving the type of stability and success that once seemed automatic in its path and predictability, put their faith in the pursuit of such efforts in hopes that they can somehow will their children to a better future.

This inductive path to success has now corrupted attitudes toward the value and purpose of higher education, and, I would argue, is undermining its role in our society. Given the costs involved, colleges and universities must be responsive to the desires of their students, and parents are certainly justified in questioning the return on such a significant investment. However, turning the college experience into an array of expensive utilitarian training programs not only does not assure any greater hope for long-term career and financial stability for students, but in fact has the exact opposite result.

Job-specific degrees help students develop a unique set of skills. Due to their uniqueness, these hard-earned skills are at the mercy of economic and technological changes that may render them obsolete well before the student loans have been paid off.

It is for this reason that I want my kids to major in English. Your first thought might be, “What kind of job can you get with an English degree?” Consider that long before the creation of job-specific baccalaureate degrees, the leaders of the most successful and profitable companies in the United States completed their undergraduate studies in the types of degree programs that are now thought to be worthless in terms of job-seeking. Current and/or past CEOs of companies such as Starbucks, FedEx, YouTube, Apple, Disney, Facebook, HBO, American Express and IBM learned to be leaders, critical thinkers and innovators not by learning the skills to do a job, but instead, the skills required to create or reimagine entire industries. Many of these successful leaders earned their undergraduate degrees in liberal arts programs such as English, in which they became well-read, well-spoken, well-written, highly analytical and understood the complexities and interrelatedness of knowledge and how best to capitalize on the potential not simply of knowing the answers, but rather knowing what questions need to be asked.

While I cannot easily answer the question of what specific jobs an English major can get, perhaps the better question is: What jobs can’t an English major get? Perhaps that is the greatest promise and purpose of a college degree anyway – career readiness rather than simple job readiness.

James Golden, Ph.D., is chairman of the Social Sciences Division at Hilbert College.