As a university student, I hear all the time about how “a degree in X is useless,” “courses in Y are so much more difficult than courses in Z,” and so on. X might be a humanities degree, Y a degree in business, and Z some social science.
Isn’t it often the case that what we do/know/study is immensely difficult and important, while what others do/know/study is trivial, inconsequential, or even a waste of time? Science students balk at the usefulness of a philosophy degree. Marketing students cannot grasp how an English degree might be monetized. Political science students joke that a history degree is in the past: there’s no critical analysis needed—only memorization. Computer science students see no purpose to a degree in fine arts, which is nothing but fluff and emotion.
It goes further than university. I see newspaper articles and comments—as well as comments on social media—exclaiming that certain degrees should be eliminated or defunded. It’s as if the sole purpose of a post-secondary degree is to get a job, with the “success” of the degree tied to one’s income after graduation. What an unfortunate life one lives when a job is their defining characteristic. The pursuit of knowledge used to be highly regarded.
Let’s be completely realistic. It’s possible for every subject to be summarized as very basic concepts, which can make it look easy; in reality, all of them take effort and offer a wealth of knowledge. As for the monetization argument, it is open for debate: outside of a few very specific fields (e.g., chemical engineering), employers are looking not for knowledge of particular course material, but rather an ability to learn, think creatively, and see the big picture. In many cases, the “soft” degrees (e.g., humanities and social sciences) teach these concepts extremely well.
Over the past year, the Government of Alberta has been very clear how it feels about post-secondary education. When he was Advanced Education Minister, Thomas Lukaszuk pushed Campus Alberta, an attempt at collaboration between universities and colleges in Alberta. The problem is, Lukaszuk and his government had little idea what they were doing and—in conjunction with massive cuts to education—aimed to oversee the direction of post-secondary education much like you would expect in the Soviet Union. The “hard” sciences—math, chemistry, physics—and degrees like business and engineering were promoted, as they are perceived as very transferable into the job market. Degrees such as humanities, child and disability services, and social sciences were not perceived the same way, and therefore the province did not look favourably upon them. Unfortunately, the direction taken by Lukaszuk and Premier Redford was extremely misguided, and their negligence and ineptitude will be felt for years as future politicians and citizens attempt to recover from their mistakes.
Perhaps we express the superiority of what we do out of xenophobia. We fear what is strange to us, and want to reinforce that we’ve made the right decision by doing what it is we do. I would hate to come to the end of my degree only to realize it is worthless, or that my time would have been much better spent doing something else.
I’ll conclude using the degree everyone loves to hate on: English. A common argument is, “What’s there to learn? I already speak English.” Yale offers an English course that is an introduction to theory in literature. The course includes discussions of semiotics, Derrida, and Lévi-Strauss. Anyone with even a cursory introduction to these topics would agree they’re anything but easy. There are intricacies to any topic of study that those of us with a basic level of knowledge (or less) cannot even begin to fathom.
Arguing that a degree in English is easy because you speak English is as apposite as saying a degree in Chemistry is easy because you are made up of atoms.
Anne Mulcahy was once the CEO of Xerox. Stephen Spielberg is one of the most famous directors of all time. Conan O’Brien is a long-time talk show host and comedian. Angelo Giamatti was President of Yale and Commissioner of Major League Baseball. Hank Paulson was CEO of Goldman Sachs and Treasury Secretary in the US. Michael Eisner was CEO of Disney. Mario Cuomo was Governor of New York. Mitt Romney is a multi-millionaire and former Republican candidate for the US Presidency. Harold Varmus won the Nobel Prize in Medicine for his work in cancer research.
They all have degrees in English.