As you’ve surely read by now, not all bachelor’s degrees are created equal, at least in terms of the financial payoff, according to a new report from the Georgetown University Center for Education and the Workforce. One article about the findings, from The Washington Post, stuck in my head, maybe because it trotted out this dead horse of a joke about the question English majors like me supposedly end up asking in life (“would you like fries with that?”). Or maybe it was this quote from Anthony P. Carnevale, the center’s director and co-author of the report, who told the Post: “I don’t want to slight Shakespeare, but this study slights Shakespeare.”
In the spirit of fair comment, I thought it was only right to let Shakespeare have his say.
My friends, let me begin by responding to this supposed “slight.” I will speak plainly so that the scholars out there might understand me: Stop kidding yourselves. I do not feel slighted. Not even a smidgen.
See, when I wrote all those plays back in the day, I had no intention of helping the bright-eyed brats of the future find their way to high-paying jobs and McMansions in the ’burbs. No, I was after something else altogether. (If you don’t understand this, please do not feel alone; this great stage of fools is plenty crowded.) To be sure, one should not attempt to mine A Midsummer Night’s Dream for literal fortune, unless, of course, you’re in the tights-and-tunics trade. But that’s another matter.
Now, I must turn to the gatekeepers of this nation’s colleges. In the days ahead, your dear, ol’ Willy will need help from you, admissions officers, as well as from you, high-school counselors. The conversation about the value of a degree has taken a treacherous turn. Packs of so-called pundits, it seems, have convinced many students and parents that the choice of a major is a black-and-white decision, as if one must choose between a life of the mind and a life of material comfort. Where’s the gray, people?!
In this troubling narrative, “Shakespeare” has become synonymous with frivolity, with dawdling, with irrelevance. You would think that to sit and read literature on the quad is to invite the fleas of poverty to feast upon you. Zounds!
This isn’t just about me, of course. My name is but a code word in the debate over the relative value of various bachelor’s degrees, and of bachelor’s degrees in general. The skeptics are saying that humanities majors are “soft” (“fluffy,” says the Post), and that these hard times seem to call for “hard” majors.
Like it or not, this sound and fury shall continue to affect the very work that you do as you recruit, recruit, recruit and counsel, counsel, counsel. The way that you all describe the “value” of a degree will have serious repercussions, for colleges and students alike. So, will you describe a college education only in terms of salaries earned by graduates? Or will you describe its many other facets, too? Will you present these benefits as mutually exclusive?
And what, pray tell, will you say about me?
The answers may well affect legions of dear, sweet babes who, should they put down their precious gadgets for a moment, might just see that they need not choose between two distinct paths in college, as if the humanities were east and sustainable careers were west, and never the twain shall meet. (For all you engineers, I’m riffing here, most awkwardly, on a chap by the name of Kipling.)
Students can do worse than to take literature courses, like ones devoted to my work, or to that of Toni Morrison, or even to depressing saps like Melville. To study literature is to practice critical thinking; to write about texts is to hone writing skills. The very things that the masters of industry demand in their employees, no?
In this little production of mine called Much Ado About Nothing, Dogberry says, “to be a well-favored man is the gift of fortune; but to write and read well comes by nature.” But let’s not take this dude too literally, all right? Does anyone think learning to write and read effectively is something that comes naturally, like breathing or bragging about your selectivity rate? It most certainly does not.
And so you might remind students that many Americans do not end up working “in” the field of their major. Go ask lawyers (assuming that nobody has killed them all) what they majored in. Ask the same of all those jolly folks with an M.B.A. on their mantel. Did they all study the same thing as undergraduates?
Let’s be clear. I’m not against temporal rewards. I got paid for my work, after all. Hamlet bought me that Rolls Royce, and there’s no shame in that. Also, I wrote this memorable line: “He that wants money, means, and content is without three good friends.” This is often true.
Yet our ambition should be made of sterner stuff. And our thinking about the ambition of young students need not be so literal.
So, let me summarize. I, as the poster boy for soft majors, remain undaunted, unfazed, and unslighted. To quote one of your modern poets, “U can’t touch this.” Then again, what do I know? As you’ve surely heard by now, I never went to college.