Updated: Jun 4, 2020
This is not something most of us with a BA hear too often. Our degree isn't usually considered as "practical" or as "useful" as a bachelor of business, or engineering, or nursing. There typically is no direct stream of jobs to fall into upon graduation. We rarely see our degree listed under the "preferred education" section of a job posting. And unless we intend to become professors and/or spend our lives doing research in our field, we likely will not directly apply the knowledge we've acquired throughout our education in our everyday lives as working humans. But none of this means our degree is not something we worked hard for and should be proud of. And here's why.
For some reason, people have slightly less respect for the amount of effort it takes to get a BA compared to one of those aforementioned degrees. Or they don't think the skill sets developed from such an education are as useful in the working world. There seems to be this misconception that because we spend our time differently, we must not be working as hard or learning as much as our, say, engineering counterparts. Now, I know engineering is a very tough discipline, and I personally couldn't survive even a week in such a program. But I bet if you asked an engineering student if they would rather read countless works of literature and then compose well-written, thoughtful, and analytical responses, they would find that more gruelling and all-around tedious than the work they typically do. Of course, everyone has their strengths and weaknesses, and everyone knows what they do and do not enjoy. So why do we English and sociology and history majors get less credit for our efforts in the pursuit of a university degree simply because it requires hard work in a way that is more enjoyable to us than crunching numbers or calculating velocity?
We may not spend hours in labs or devote every waking minute to memorizing formulas and equations, or whatever it is that those science students seem to be constantly poring over, but you know what we have had to do? For starters, reading a 400-page novel every week or two is typical of an English class, and that is on top of another three or four courses that likely have demanding reading lists of their own. Sure, we have SparkNotes -- and I won't deny that in some circumstances I've resorted to the resources so generously published online by the literature nerds of the Internet -- but on average, most BA students dedicate long hours to completing their readings and the assignments that accompany them, and for some reason this is not a respectable use of time.
I know this is part of the issue: people think reading a book or a poem is not nearly as difficult or as valuable as learning calculus or evaluating the stress and strain of a structure. I get it. At first glance, the latter sounds much more challenging and potentially applicable in a career than the former. I mean, people read books for fun, but how often do you hear of someone doing organic chemistry to relax before bed? (I'm sure there are some odd nerdy humans out there who do this, but I'm quite positive it's not common.) What most people who jump to this conclusion don't realize is how much knowledge one can gain from reading a piece of literature. Because of this, my degree taught me a little bit about everything. The array of literature courses I was required to take, each with a focus on different genres, themes, or time periods, gave me the opportunity to learn about philosophical views, religious beliefs, theories of psychology, and important moments in world history, big and small. I'm not a history buff by any means, but 90% of what I know comes from reading novels that weave fictional narratives into very real moments in history. If it weren't for Julie Otsuka's When The Emperor Was Divine, I would know very little about the Japanese internment that took place in the U.S. during World War II. If I hadn't read a selection of Louise Erdrich's novels depicting the generational trauma that persists in Indigenous communities, I wouldn't be able to empathize as deeply with their oppression or have as profound an understanding of the lasting impact of colonization. Of course, these things could be learned from a history book, but in my opinion, it is much more poignant and eye-opening to experience historical events from the perspective of a character you've grown to connect to and identify with.
On the first day of classes last semester, one of my professors had us do an icebreaker. What's worse than a typical introduction icebreaker? Oh, I don't know... How about one where you introduce yourself by sharing what you think makes a poem great?! I immediately started plotting my escape, though I already knew my fate had been sealed. I sat anxiously, thinking 'just say the least dumb thing you can think of' while wishing desperately that I could close my eyes and disappear. I think we all know I'm not a fan of situations like this -- I might even go as far as to say they are my personal hell. But alas, I was not granted the ability to become invisible in my time of need (thanks a lot, God! Not doing much to convince me of your existence, pal.) (I feel shame for calling God "pal." It seems pretty blasphemous. I'm sorry, God.) When my dreaded turn arrived, I said that what I think makes a poem great is when it makes me see things from a different perspective. At the time, I thought it was a solid answer; not too bullshit-y, not too "I don't deserve to be in this room or read poetry ever again"-y, but just right. Upon reflection, I think this answer is more than just an adequate icebreaker response. I think it's the truth: the very best literature allows you to see the world in a way you hadn't before; it opens your eyes to a perspective you may never have considered.
Though less "practical" than others, my degree has exposed me to the realities of people whose life experiences differ so greatly from mine, and I believe that is one of the greatest gifts of all. It is maybe the most important thing we can learn to do, and yet it is so often overlooked when it comes to the valuable skills we are expected to develop in university. Most people who haven't been obligated to read things they wouldn't pick up by choice likely do not have this experience. And because of this, they might be the ones missing out on a real education. Just kidding. I'm not here to degree-shame. The purpose of this post is to do quite the opposite: I'm here to say that all degrees are worth celebrating. Every single one of them. We all put in the time, the effort, and certainly the money, and we all come out with a piece of paper officially declaring that we are at last competent enough to enter the real world. The ways we had to work to achieve that paper vary greatly, but in the end, it's those give-or-take four years spent grinding it out that earned us that accomplishment. And we all deserve to be proud.
So to my fellow Bachelor of Arts holders, who I'm sure have had similar discouraging experiences when it comes to job searching and telling adults that you have a degree in ____, we are fine. A lot of people just don't understand what goes into a BA, and most assume that the only thing an English degree is good for is teaching. Just once I'd like to tell someone about my degree and not have them immediately follow up with "oh, so you want to be a teacher?" As a matter of fact, I do not. And you know what else? I'm not the first person with an English degree who doesn't want to be a teacher, and I'm certainly not going to be the last. You can do whatever the heck you want with your degree. I may not be a walking example of this at the moment, but I know a whole lot of people with careers that seem quite unrelated to their undergrad studies. At the end of the day, a degree is a degree, so let's celebrate the accomplishment and not let our majors define what we are capable of.
P.S. April fools! Your degree is still useless.