In Chronicle of Higher Education (registration required), a professor writes about seeing a talented former student who’d earned a degree in English with a minor in information science. She was working as a cashier at Target.
However I rationalize it, in my gut I feel that it is not right for someone to spend four years and tens of thousands of dollars to end up with the kind of job one could have right out of high school. She had done everything right, all the way up the educational ladder. And there she was, in my spiraling imagination, a refutation of any lingering belief I had in the relationship between merit and job opportunity.
It seems like it’s always the top students who realize too late that performance in school does not lead directly to success in the job market. The connected get good jobs, whatever their abilities; the unconnected get the McJobs, whatever their abilities.
The professor remembers the lousy jobs he got as an English major with a business minor and a load of debt. He went to graduate school to earn a doctorate. Through luck, he found a tenure-track job; classmates weren’t so lucky.
She came to me for advice. I told her something like this: “A liberal-arts degree is the best preparation for life in general, but it helps if you also have some specific, marketable skills.”
. . . Whatever she does, is my former student not better off for having earned an undergraduate degree in the humanities? Isn’t an enriched mental life worth something? Her time will come someday, right?
All I have is an instinctive belief in the value of a liberal education without regard to its practical use. I am increasingly sure that it is wrong to encourage students (and indirectly ourselves) to justify the work and expense of education as a prelude to lucrative career opportunities. Yet I know that when so many students undertake so much debt to go to college, the link between education and future income becomes unavoidable.
A liberal education is undertaken at one’s financial peril, the professor concludes.