Blog on the Run: Reloaded

Monday, September 29, 2014 8:19 pm

Why English majors are the hot new hires. (And, no, that not an Onion headline.)

Hey, take it from the American Express website.

I never had a lot of patience with people who asked me why I was majoring in English.

For one thing, I enjoyed it. Duh.

But for another, the skills you develop as an English major are the skills American business always says it needs more of: critical thinking, analytical ability, and the ability to communicate clearly. That was true 32 years ago and it remains true today. Those skills will prepare you for jobs that don’t even exist yet. I know that’s true because they did for me.

In fact, American business’s global competitors are finding they need the same skills, and that their job-focused college educations aren’t providing the people they need who have those skills. So they’re retooling their higher education along the U.S.’s traditional liberal-arts model.

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t major in STEM if that’s what sings to you and/or you’re really serious about getting a particular job in that field straight out of school.

But it does mean that an English degree has a world of applications in a broad variety of business contexts. So does practically any liberal-arts degree, because they all teach the same skills, just in different contexts. And that, Pat McCrory, is why English majors (and Art History majors and Women’s Studies majors and on and on) are the hot new hires.

Thursday, May 19, 2011 8:08 pm

Quote of the day, War on Education edition

Notes from the front lines of the war on education, by Chris Hedges, author of War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, writing at TruthDig:

The truly educated become conscious. They become self-aware. They do not lie to themselves. They do not pretend that fraud is moral or that corporate greed is good. They do not claim that the demands of the marketplace can morally justify the hunger of children or denial of medical care to the sick. They do not throw 6 million families from their homes as the cost of doing business. Thought is a dialogue with one’s inner self. Those who think ask questions, questions those in authority do not want asked. They remember who we are, where we come from and where we should go. They remain eternally skeptical and distrustful of power. And they know that this moral independence is the only protection from the radical evil that results from collective unconsciousness. The capacity to think is the only bulwark against any centralized authority that seeks to impose mindless obedience. There is a huge difference, as Socrates understood, between teaching people what to think and teaching them how to think. Those who are endowed with a moral conscience refuse to commit crimes, even those sanctioned by the corporate state, because they do not in the end want to live with criminals—themselves.

It’s interesting to see and hear how many backers of immoral corporate interests use essentially these same concepts, but do so in contexts, such as rejecting the notion that a liberal-arts education remains worthwhile, that indicate that they have fundamentally misunderstood the very concepts they invoke. They get the words but not the music. And they are a clear and present danger to our remaining the kind of country we set out in 1787 to be.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011 6:36 pm

Why everyone ought to take a creative-writing course

True story: I’ve written for money for more than 30 years.

Equally true story: In more than 40 years of trying, I’ve never crafted so much as a single page of what I believe to be credible prose fiction. To the extent that I have any gifts, and to the extent that I have been able to hone my craft without breaking either the stone or the blade, my gifts and my craft lie elsewhere.

Nonetheless: If it were practical and affordable, I would drive down to Columbia, shove some ingrate undergrads out of my way and sign up right now for Elise Blackwell’s fiction-writing workshop (depending on your IP address, this may be behind a paywall). I have no idea how good a teacher of fiction writing, per se, she is, but I know for a fact she knows what she’s doing and why it matters:

As a form of world-building, fiction stimulates imagination, makes students ask “why? and “what if?” I’m not naïve enough to argue that writing fiction makes someone a better person—I know far too many misanthropic, narcissistic, besotted, and otherwise atrociously behaved writers to make that case—but the attempt to create original fiction encourages students to imagine in detail what it might be like to live another life. This form of role-taking can foster their capacity to engage other people with imagination, openness, and empathy.

Writing workshops also give lessons in group dynamics, self-control, delivering and receiving well-intended criticism, and building an atmosphere in which good work happens painlessly. Due to the relatively small class size and fact that the students themselves produce the texts under discussion, the students have one of their most intimate and interactive college experiences. It’s not just that the professor knows their names but that they know each other’s names—and much more. When students with divergent backgrounds and sensibilities respond to each other with generosity and intelligence, much is learned not just about fiction but about living well in a world populated by other people. (Potential employers take note: Students in workshops report a sense of responsibility to the group to show up prepared and meet their deadlines.)

Perhaps most valuable, if hardest to pin down, is this: Writing and discussing literary fiction can shake loose the conviction that life operates by clichés and that human behavior follows simple psychological formulas. Milan Kundera has argued that the novel is the art form best able to depict ambiguity and that its spirit of inquiry is its great value. The scholarly study of literature teaches ambiguity, too, and well, but writing students tend to engage with their own work and the unpublished work of their peers more personally and with a great sense of contingency. When I hear a student in workshop say, “But that’s not what I would do in that character’s situation,” it always means the student’s critical vocabulary needs sharpening and it often means the story up in workshop has an implausible plot or unconvincing characterization. But sometimes it also signals a nascent understanding of human difference and complexity.

When I hear a student point out where another’s overextended metaphor stumbles, I hear someone discovering that language can mislead. When another says, “So she got the guy, but isn’t the most interesting part of the story what comes next?,” I hear a student realize that  marriage is about more than wedding planning. And when I hear a student who is asked whether his narrator is “bad” or “good” answer “both,” I recognize an increased tolerance for answers that aren’t easy and a real effort to understand the human condition.

I’ve recently blogged, and engaged in some online discussion elsewhere, about the value of a liberal-arts education. That value? This stuff right here.

Friday, May 6, 2011 7:56 pm

Quote of the day, value-of-a-liberal-arts-education edition, with elaboration at no extra charge.

… from commenter “Jes St. Lawrence” on the Inside Higher Education website, where the value of a liberal-arts education is being hotly debated in light of movements in some states to tie college/university funding to job placement:

Yes, the job market is changing rapidly, so what we really need are more narrowly-educated people. Brilliant.

The Liberal Arts have always been a tough sell because the name of the degree isn’t the name of the job. Some people can’t get past that, and by “some people” I really mean “stupid people.” Recognizing the skill set involved in a major called “history,” for instance, and connecting that skill set to appropriate jobs, is apparently too complicated to explain to a governor.

Amen. When I was starting to look at colleges almsot 35 years ago, my parents told me that no matter what I thought I wanted to do when I got out of college (at the time, be a DJ), I ought to get a good liberal-arts education because, although it might not prepare me for that job, it would prepare me for a career.

And so it has. The job I wanted, I actually got well before I finished my bachelor’s; indeed, that DJing helped pay my educational bills and kept my student-loan levels manageable. But I’ve had, by my count, five distinct careers in the 29 years since I graduated from college, including one in a field that arguably didn’t exist for almost 15 years after I graduated, and that liberal-arts background has been valuable — no, invaluable — in all of them.

In my current line of work, I tell kids that a rigorous liberal-arts education will prepare them not only for the jobs they want to do but for the jobs they will want that don’t even exist yet. And I know it’s true, because that is exactly what my liberal-arts education has done for me.

I think it’s perfectly appropriate to discuss how well our colleges and universities are doing their jobs, and for public institutions to have their funding tied to that outcome. But for that process to achieve its desired outcome, we need define those jobs better. What do we expect our colleges and universities to do for their students — to prepare them for a job? A career? Citizenship? What are the criteria for assessing progress toward those goals?

And before we can do that, we need to decide what we want our kids to be — not do, be — when they grow up.

Here’s my vote:

Lots of people can, to use one example of a currently marketable skill, build, maintain and query databases. I want American kids to be able to do most of the following, find someone who can do the parts they don’t know how to do, and to understand the need for all of it: Query a database. Know which databases to query. Know where and how to get them. Know what kind of queries will tell them whether the college president, or the corporation president, or the U.S. president, is a criminal, and how to prove it. Know why it’s important to prosecute him if he is a criminal, and what bad things are likely to happen if he is a criminal and we don’t prosecute him. And be able to explain to someone else why all of this is important.

I want citizens in full, because the kind of country we chose in 1787 to be demands that we have them. And if we want nice things, we need to pay for them.

Now we just need to figure out how best to get them. Let’s get started.

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