What Do You Do With a B.A. in English? Academic Elitism vs. Practicality

By Victoria Morrell

Woman-asleep-with-books-002As a liberal arts student, my world was filled with academia and the pursuit of knowledge but was devoid of tangible, real world advice. Life after college seemed like a far-off myth. While my mind was filled with the work of Kant, Plato, and Rousseau, I was rarely presented with career options outside of academics and, as a result, my employment prospects were limited.

Recently, my company launched a new hire program and decided to focus our recruitment efforts on graduating students. I was charged with the task of reaching out to teachers from multiple universities to ask if they’d be willing to share the information with their classes. Nine times out of ten I was told to get lost. As soon as I said the words “job opportunity,” most professors would hang up the phone. Those polite enough to sit through my speech would usually tell me that they simply couldn’t “waste class time with this.” The same thing happened in emails, message boards, and prearranged meetings. Now, we all know that college professors are often overworked, overtired and overstressed, but refusing to discuss life beyond their hallowed halls is nothing short of selfish and irresponsible.

While studying the works of ancient philosophers, writers, and artists is noble, it isn’t very practical. A life of academia has always belonged to the privileged, the wealthy, and frivolous. In early times, ruling families educated their children in the arts and history, while the working class focused on apprenticeships and trades; and it’s been that way for many years. Even our parents were subjected to classist education. Those with money went on to study art history at elite liberal arts colleges, while children of blue-collar families went on to trade schools and studied nursing, cosmetology, or auto-mechanics. But as the middle class grew and expanded, so did the concept of higher education.

Thanks to a global economy, 21st century technologies, the introduction of FAFSA and growing scholarship programs, a college education has become accessible to more students than ever before. That’s the way it should be. Colleges however, have yet to make the proper adjustments. Many professors are stuck in an era of academic elitism. They focus their energy on the importance of early Roman law, but fail to realize that a larger, more diverse student body needs to learn how to apply this knowledge to something tangible.

Perhaps the problem is that our teachers are often elitist academics themselves. I’ve had amazing professors over the years, but they all had one thing in common: they went to overpriced, private colleges, grad schools, and doctorate programs. They summered in Europe and spent their spare time writing novels, short stories, or essays. Like many academics of the 21st century, I can imagine that my former mentors have had to justify their chosen professions on more than one occasion. It’s like the adult version of the “What do you do with a B.A. in History?” question, and I’m sure it’s just as frustrating. Of course, I’m generalizing, but that doesn’t make it untrue.

There’s a common fear amongst academics that classical study is a dying art, and I can imagine many professors taking it upon themselves to revitalize it, but in doing so they fail to ensure a comfortable future for their students. How many liberal arts graduates can recall a time their teachers discussed real-life employment options? I can count those times on one hand, but I specifically remember an email blast about graduate programs.

Times have changed. For the first time ever, a majority of middle-class Americans can pursue some type of higher education, and a Bachelor’s Degree no longer belongs to the wealthiest one percent. However, many of us are now strapped with heavy student loan debt, and unlike the one percent, our parents can’t bail us out. This is why we need more job opportunities. I am in no way saying that we should abandon liberal arts curriculums. A liberal arts education provides students with unmeasurable skills like the ability to write, research, and articulate any argument in a professional, coherent manner. However, instead of only focusing on academia we need our colleges to highlight other options as well; believe me, that’s not a waste of any teacher’s time.

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