Career Choices

A recent article on Yahoo News stuck in my craw. Vicki Lynn, the Vice President of Universum, a “global talent recruiting company that works with many Fortune 500 companies,” lists five academic majors she insists are “useless” and will lead invariably to unemployment. The list includes philosophy, of course, so I am deeply invested in this argument as you might guess!

Philosophy is linked with Religious Studies by Ms Lynn and the list also includes Architecture, Anthropology or Archeology, Ethnic Studies, and Information Studies. In each case Lynn recommends alternative fields that she is convinced are more marketable. I cannot speak about the rest of the disciplines in the list except to make the general point that education is not about career choices, it’s about enabling one’s mind and doing what you love to do the rest of your life. How many people “out there” are in deadly dull jobs because they majored in a narrow field where there were job openings at the time and are now stuck in a dead-end with no real chance of any significant change? The data suggest the numbers are very high indeed. In fact, by the time most people have reached their mid-forties they have changed jobs five times. The only thing we know for certain is that things will change: education must prepare young people for change, not for a job.

My advice to my students was always take a variety of courses in their first couple of years in college and find something they really like and major in that — then minor in something useful like business or computer science and the jobs will be out there when they graduate. More importantly they will be happy. My younger son majored in history (not on Lynn’s list, but I daresay she would be happy to include it) and is now a District Sales Manager for a large company. My older son majored in Creative Writing (again not on her list, but I expect she would he happy to add it as well) and he works for a medical insurer as the editor of their in-house publications. They both seem successful and happy. And I have heard from a number of former students who followed my advice, graduated, and are doing very well, thank you very much.

But when it comes to philosophy or religious studies (which Lynn links together for some reason) there are good reasons to major in these fields. For one thing, philosophy majors score high, on average, on the LSAT tests and make successful attorneys. They can also teach or go to Seminary — as can those who major in religious studies. Or they can do any number of jobs that require an active and analytical mind. When I was a tennis pro at a country club West of Chicago I met a very successful investment broker who majored in philosophy and insisted that his college major was invaluable to him in his work. Garry Trudeau, creator of “Doonesbury,” reportedly majored in philosophy as did Steve Martin. I wrote a blog not long ago about Phyllis Billington who graduated with a major in philosophy from Northwestern University. She brags about her “useless” major and attests to the fact that it stood her in good stead in what was a remarkably varied and successful career. As she said in an interview: “I never could have gotten through life without it. Philosophy taught me to analyze, to see what was important, to keep my mind open but not to be afraid of convictions.”

But I do realize the data support Lynn’s claims. She doesn’t work with anecdotal evidence and her field of vision is much broader than mine. There may indeed be many a philosophy major out there serving hamburgers at McDonald’s [WHY do you want fries with that?]. But that’s only how they make a living. What about their quality of life? What do they do in their leisure time? I know of a creative writing major who works as a janitor at a local hospital so he can earn enough money to get by as he writes, which is what he loves to do. And that’s what this is all about: finding something you love to do and being happy. It’s not about jobs.

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14 thoughts on “Career Choices

    • It always bothered me that the Freshmen advisers try to push their students into a major as soon as possible — before they have had a chance to look around. The reason is that students with majors tend to finish school; undecided students often drop out. But it’s not business, it’s education. We tend to conflate the two in this culture.

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  1. WHY do you want fries with that?

    When I approached the final paragraph, I knew there was a punch line waiting to make me chuckle, and chuckle I did!

    Ah! To do what one loves, that is the answer to happiness! Why be hobbled to a life that owns you if it gives little joy? That’s what gives people powder-keg tempers! Analytic skills are important for those studies mentioned above, and those skills are so important in figuring one’s way out of many tight spots and helping others as well. I’m surprised art wasn’t listed!

    Last week when traveling with friends, we viewed some crumbling historic buildings,and nearby were stark ugly concrete ones in modern designs. I sighed and said, “They just don’t put love or attention to detail in their work anymore. Beautiful architecture is becoming a lost art.”

    As for anthropology and archaeology, almost every day something old is unearthed, and the more we know, the more we don’t know. The ancients were more brilliant than most realize, and spending quiet time on a dig or deep in study probably makes one a lot happier than someone who’s racing the clock to meet stressful demands of a higher-paying job.

    Less is more; some people will never figure that out!

    • Thanks, Z. My mom was an artist and I drew a little and always loved teaching aesthetics. The art majors were required to take the course and they were always fun to listen to. I don’t think there is a career out there that doesn’t require that people think and solve puzzles. The push toward careerism is a HUGE mistake!

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  2. Hugh, a great blog. I loved “WHY do you want fries with that?” You’ve probably got a New Yorker cartoon in the making there.

    The only reservation I have about some of these degrees (and I have a creative writing/lit major) is the gigantic spikes in tuition costs over the last 15 years and the resulting debt load that many students carry. It can be $40,000 of debt even at a small public university, and much more, if say, the student went to the University of Minnesota, or a private college or went on to graduate school. That makes finding a good-paying job more of an imperative for many students. There’s probably got to be a double-pronged attack: our society needs students who major in the areas the Yahoo! News story says not too — they are better thinkers, more socially conscious, and happier. So we need to encourage students to consider those majors, but also work harder to make college more affordable, the way it once was.

    • Thanks, Dana. It is a delicate balance but I worry about the emphasis we put on the career to the exclusion of all other considerations. (I borrowed the funny line from a Tee shirt!!)

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  3. Well, I majored in St. John’s College and had a thirty year career with the IBM Company as a software systems architect. It was a great job and I had many challenging assignments the best of which was the Global Positioning System!

  4. Matthew Arnold saw the flaw in Lynn’s reasoning years ago. Concentrating only on the practical fields–ones that lead to immediate employment–stultifies thought and intellectual development:

    “It is undeniable that the exercise of a creative power, that a free creative activity, is the highest function of man…. [But] the mass of mankind will never have an ardent zeal for seeing things as they are; very inadequate ideas will always satisfy them…. For the practical man is not apt for fine distinctions, and yet in these distinctions truth and the highest culture greatly find their account.”
    —from “The Function of Criticism at the Present Time,” 1864.

  5. My first pilosophy class as a college freshman opened my mind to new ways of thinking. What I learned set a foundation of critical thinking skills that helped me throughout my college years and beyond. I still have my tattered, heavily highlighted copies of Plato’s Republic, Aristotle’s The Politics, Mill and Bentham’s Utilitarianism, and others. I went on to take 2 more philosophy classes, both focused on political philosophy. Where would we be without Plato, Rawls, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke, and so many others? These ideas and ways of thinking are so entwined with our Nation’s Constitution, or for that matter, with all forms of government, economical systems, social structures, ethics. I agree that education should prepare people for change, not a job. After all, it is these thinking skills that are critical not just in your job, your profession, but in your personal and community life. Thanks for posting this and sharing your wisdom. -Ilene

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