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Being an English major is a little of a running gag in my family. Out of all my siblings, I have the highest level of education and (so far) the most years in school. Yet I also make the least amount of money and have the lowest expectation of career advancement. Usually it’s just good-natured teasing, the way one expects from siblings. I indulge in it myself from time to time, but even my self-deprecating humor has taken on a sharper edge. As the years roll on, it just doesn’t seem funny anymore.
I recently read an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal entitled, “Is Majoring in English Worth It?” The contents were pretty much what I’d expected: a half-mocking look at how the value of an English degree has declined dramatically even as the cost of college exponentially increases, making it “the most regretted college major in America.” But I hadn’t expected the intense wave of bitterness that swept over me, a deep sense of resentment that something I spent six years, thousands of dollars, and untold amounts of stress attaining, a skill that I am good at, can be summarily dismissed as the butt of a bad joke.
So, like a good little Millennial, I shared some of my frustration on social media:
I got some sympathetic faces in response, which was about all I had expected. But then my friend David asked a very poignant question:
“If you had a time machine, what would you do differently?”
That made me stop and think. Usually we’re told to not look back, to have no regrets and keep pressing on to a better tomorrow. But this negates the power of lessons learned by looking at past choices and seeing how those choices played out. And as a much older individual with a decade’s-worth of work and life experience under my belt, I can tell you that using time travel to solve a problem is not nearly as straightforward as it might initially appear.
The problem with that premise is that there are way too many variables which in turn depend on what my end goal would be: financial security vs. broadening my mental horizons. These days, especially when you don’t have a lot of money and aren’t willing to go into indentured-servitude levels of debt, you can’t have both. And unfortunately, short of completely changing my personality and formative experiences, I don’t know if I would have been suited for anything besides an English or some similar literature-focused degree. I always knew I wasn’t cut out to be a teacher, and while I have worked in libraries for over a decade, I would have to go back to school for a Masters of Library Science in order to be an official “librarian,” not to mention moving to a city in order to collect a decent salary. Coming from a creative family, I’ve always had to try to balance the desire to do things that feel worthwhile, meaningful, and fun with doing what needs to be done to make a living since society does not deem the arts worthy of livable monetary compensation.
I didn’t “decide” writing was my thing until middle school, and even then it was amorphous, a “soft choice.” Before that, I wanted to be everything from a country singer to an astronaut. While I wasn’t old enough to know what I wanted to be as a kid, I dare say I was smart enough to realize that I was too young to know what I wanted to do. I always resented being asked to make those kinds of high-investment, life-path-determining decisions when I knew I wasn’t ready or equipped for them, either in mental maturity or because I lacked the necessary experience. Since I’ve never been ambitious, not in the traditional sense, and many of the “milestones” of adulthood hold little to no interest for me, most of my academic and career choices have been based on the question, “What can I do that I’m somewhat good at that won’t drive me insane?” My decision to go to college was not from a desire for prestige (which has never impressed me) or parental pressure (they’re extremely pragmatic and suspicious of deeply entrenched institutions), or even from an insatiable thirst for knowledge. My earlier school years had already taught me that if I truly wanted to learn, school was not the place to do it. College was just the next logical step. It was what one did in order to get the piece of paper that said I jumped through all of their ridiculous hoops so I could get a decent paying job in an already-degrading economy. (I actually have very little job experience; while I have been a cleaning lady, I’ve never worked retail or in fast food.)
In all honestly, I am a prime example of someone who probably should not have gone to college. While I was always an A student in middle school and high school, I think that was more a reflection of the low academic bar I had to jump over than a true measure of my intelligence and abilities. There were always a few classes and teachers who challenged me, but even taking AP classes only did so much. As someone who experienced a whole gamut of educational styles and institutions (home school for my elementary years, private middle school, public high school, community college, university, and even massive open online courses), I can tell you that the higher up the education food chain I went, the less valuable the experience became overall. For me, truly enjoyable learning has always been an organic process where I follow a particular thread down the rabbit hole into the labyrinth based on what interests me at the moment, not in any vigorous or measurable way. Students need a rigorous basic education to ensure they can read, write, do at least basic math, and have a grasp of essential geography, science, and historical facts. So I’m not saying school is useless or unnecessary. I’m saying that having everyone go to college is neither useful nor necessary.
At the same time, I also have no idea what I would be doing if I hadn’t gotten into reading and writing the way I did. What would I be doing if I hadn’t majored in English? If I had that time machine, should I have exchanged those hours spent reading and playing out stories with something else? Something more “worthwhile” in the eyes of modern economics to reach the end goal of making a living? Should I go back to childhood and foster more love of building and construction of real objects rather than with words? Tinkering with cars and electronics? Engagement and understanding of math and science? Change my personality to be more outgoing or extroverted and ambitious? Support an interest in and aptitude for athletics, sports, and outdoor physical activity? Give me more experiences of failure to learn resiliency? Doing those things would have made me into a completely different person rather than solving the problem of majoring in English.
I guess if everything else was the same, with a time machine, I would have gone back and skipped Mount Saint Mary’s University to go straight to Penn State Mont Alto. Because I did learn a lot at Mont Alto and it was a very valuable part of expanding my horizons. But because I was so destroyed from years straight of school, plus the MSM debacle, I was in no mental condition to appreciate it fully or take advantage of the opportunities I had. Perhaps I should have taken a year off school after finishing high school or after time at community college to take apprenticeships, try out different jobs, and see what appealed to me. I might not have tried working at the same time as being a student either… being a commuter was hard enough, but being a working commuter with my own home for the first time to try to take care of was even more stress. But with little to no support from scholarships and a deep-set aversion to debt, I couldn’t justify staying in school longer “just for the experience.” I had to get in, get it done, and get out as quickly as possible before my meager finances imploded.
Unfortunately, a lot of factors that impact the value of an English degree are completely out of my control: the economic crash, society’s neglect to assign decent value (in terms of money and respect) to work done in the humanities, the socio-economic tier I was born into, geographical location (which technically could be changed, but I lack the funds and mental/emotional fortitude to do), the internet age changing all kinds of things with as-yet-unforeseen repercussions… The speed and uber-connectivity of the modern world is unforgiving of those who wish to savor life at a more sedate pace.
All of the tried and true methods of making a living have changed and most of them aren’t coming back. Some people find that exhilarating; as someone who prefers stability, even though I know that change in inevitable, I just find it terrifying and frustrating. And even if I did have a time machine, there is so much I wouldn’t be able to change or wouldn’t know how to change without doing more than stepping on a single butterfly.
Many thanks to David Greenshell
for suggesting that my rambling thoughts on Facebook
about English majors and time travel
could be turned into a blog entry.