For what it's worth

I'm not worried: my liberal arts degree is going to prove its value

- January 29, 2014

Julia Manoukian knows all that reading and writing is going to do her well. (Natalie Mike photo)
Julia Manoukian knows all that reading and writing is going to do her well. (Natalie Mike photo)

This spring, if all goes according to plan, my time as an undergraduate English major at Dalhousie will end. But as I think about the prospect of graduating, like many other liberal arts and humanities students, I wonder about the worth of my degree in the “real world.” What are the employment prospects? How can I market myself? What have I really learned during these past four years?

Part of the self-doubt comes from an irrational fear of not finding a career after graduation. The rest of it is fed by people raising a collective eyebrow when I tell them what I’m studying — people bashing my major, warning me about the job market, as if I didn’t already know the challenges inherent to my program.

“Not only is it a misconception that liberal arts majors have a higher unemployment rate, it’s simply untrue,” says Jason Haslam, professor of American literature and popular culture at Dal.

According to a recent study by the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce, humanities and liberal arts majors rank pretty much in the middle of the pack in the U.S., at 9% unemployment. The “lit nerds,” as an article in The Atlantic put it, are on par with recent graduates in computer and math fields (9.1%), psychology and social work (8.8%), and the social sciences (10.3%).

It’s worth noting that none of the unemployment numbers are particularly good, which Professor Haslam attributes to the ongoing effects of the recession. “There’s a higher unemployment rate than there used to be, but that’s across the board, across all degrees.”

Evidently, young people have been hit the hardest — at least when it comes to employability. And the lack of Canadian data doesn’t make it any easier to gauge where we stand next to our American counterparts.

But a new study by the Association of American Colleges and Universities has encouraging long-term financial news for liberal arts students. The results show that during peak earning ages (ages 56–60), participating humanities and social sciences grads in Canada and the U.S. earned more than those with pre-professional or professional undergraduate degrees. And this study set the unemployment rate for recent liberal arts graduates at 5.2%.

Developing the intangibles

Despite all the early hurdles for university graduates, I’ve learned that you can still construct a powerful resume even if you have no experience in the workforce. And by teaching me about the power of language, my English classes may just give me a leg up on the competition.

Leading small business expert and author of Why I Hire English Majors, Steve Strauss, says if he’s going to hire someone right out of college or university, he’s not just looking for experience.

“What you really want is somebody who’s smart, somebody who knows how to work hard, somebody who can think for themselves, somebody who can take initiative,” he says. “You want somebody who can follow directions, you want somebody you’d like to work with. Often people want to hire someone they’re going to want to spend eight or 10 hours a day with. As long as you have the qualifications, then it’s also a matter of personality and chemistry.”

Strauss has found that Liberal arts students—particularly ones who study English—excel in these attributes. “The words they gave you, that ability to be easy to chat with, are all things you find in humanities majors.”

I’ll admit that hearing this reinforcement from a well-established professional (Strauss has been writing for USA Today for 15 years and is the author of 15 books) was relieving. Every degree offers students the opportunity to be the best they can, and these qualities, the qualities that make a good student, also make a good employee. Who would have thought?

But what does being a good liberal arts student look like on paper?

“Advanced literacy skills, communication skills, the ability to assess any given situation, and the ability to critically think their way through that situation and learn as they go through,” says Professor Haslam.

In particular, we English students learn to recognize changes in tone, the use of rhetoric, changes in register, changes in diction. These skills aren’t just applicable to classwork, but also to real-life situations.

“They give arts students the ability to understand any given situation, the way in which people are being placed in that situation, and also the ability to manipulate those situations,” says Prof. Haslam.

Just think how useful those skills can be in interviews, meetings and debates.

“What happens when you learn how to write is you learn how to think,” says Strauss. “That’s the value of humanities. It teaches you how to think, how to reason, how to think critically — and those are fantastic skills for the rest of your life. Those are fantastic skills for you personally, and for an employer.”

Critical thinking doesn’t just mean jumping through the hoops, or even, for that matter, knowing what hoops to jump through. Rather, it’s the ability “to be told what to do and to do it well, and to figure out how to do it better, very quickly,” says Prof. Haslam.

Too good to be true?

Being able to read and talk about Dante’s Inferno or The Trial is all well and good, but writer Matt Saccaro doesn’t think it makes you more hirable.

“If you’re going to pay $40,000 for a degree to read stuff that you could have read on the Internet for free for significantly less money, I think that’s a little foolish,” he says. “Discussions about Kafka don’t strengthen a resume.”

A regular contributor to websites such as Thought Catolog, including an article titled “Should College Be For Job Training Or Education?”, Saccaro says he could understand paying money to study at university before the Digital Age because “expertise was not so accessible.” But today, unless your degree trains you directly for a job such as medicine or accounting, he believes people don’t need to go the post-secondary route to get an education.

“You can get educated anywhere now, as long as you have an Internet connection.”

Prof. Haslam isn’t sold. In this information-driven economy, we can have all the computers in the world without liberal arts majors, “but whether the message we want people to get through those computers is getting through, we don’t know,” he says.

With an accumulated federal student-loan debt in Canada of more than $15-billion, it’s easy to buy into Saccaro’s argument. Yet, considering that liberal arts and humanities majors fall in the middle of the pack in terms of unemployment, the situation isn’t as fatal as it appears. Education is an investment, after all.

“We’re often in a materialist vision where the only research that matters is the research that can be directly applied to the economy, the only jobs that matter are the ones that directly relate to science and things that you can do with your material hands,” says Prof. Haslam. “But what is it people are doing with those material goods? They’re using them for information purposes. We’re the reason for this. Culture is the reason for this, and we can help make it better.”

The fact that I've close-read half the passages in Nineteen Eighty-Four may not be something I want to put on my resume, but it taught me something about how language can stifle thought — how we need language to maintain our humanity.

“Humanities and liberal arts majors protect our archives, they protect our history, and therefore protect our future,” says Haslam.

So, liberal arts and humanities majors invest in the future of society. That sounds grand, I know, but can you imagine a world without books?

“Literature, art, film, all of these things are food for the mind, and without that a society starves. It’s all knowledge,” says Prof. Haslam.

It’s going to be OK

Even Saccaro admits he loved majoring in history at George Washington University, and he wouldn’t have had the discipline to write a 90-page honours thesis without the structure of school. The process taught him time management, a skill that’s invaluable to him as a writer. “I was grateful for what I did in college because at that time I wanted to do it and it ended up helping me out.”

Like Saccaro, I’m grateful for my time as an English and Creative Writing major at Dal. I’ve taken some wonderful classes here — Close Reading, Ulysses, Writing Practice, to name a few — where I learned much more than the given skill set, whether that be copy editing or close reading. I’ve made lifelong connections with people and come up with ideas that I wouldn’t have been able to make anywhere else, especially not over the Internet (sorry, Saccaro).

And, in a program that values and expects individuality, that has made me think, question, and explore, I’ve honed all those so-called soft skills that will help me land a job and career.

“The building blocks of the study of English and the humanities is language itself, and you use that no matter what your discipline is,” says Prof. Haslam. “The more you have a grip on that, the more you have a grip on everything in the world.”


Want to explore all the academic programs that Dalhousie offers? Visit the Academic Program Fair on Friday, January 31, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. in the McInnes Room (Student Union Building).

Interested in exploring some career options that will make use of your degree? Drop by the Summer Job & Career Fair on Wednesday, February 5, from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. in the McInnes Room. Following the Career Fair, from 3:30 to 5 p.m. in McCain 1170, the Department of English is hosting a career panel with three humanities grads now working in the public service. Hear some real-life tales about how they applied the skills they learned in their undergraduate degrees to meaningful and important careers.


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