The first time I caught shit because of my master’s degree was two months before I’d even started it. I’d taken the opportunity before going to school to quit my job early and travel for about a month. I’d taken trains from Cincinnati to Seattle, and decided to go visit my buddy in Vancouver before continuing on to California. On the way back into the country, a border guard stopped me.
“Occupation,” he asked, leafing through my passport and not looking at me.
“Student,” I said.
“The London School of Economics.” He looked up at me at this point.
“You studying economics?”
“No, human rights.”
He smirked. “Is that even a thing?”
“Human rights? Yeah. It’s a thing.”
At the time, I felt a vague sense of shame—human rights are a particularly bleeding heart thing to be studying, and I suspected that it was not the best use of my time or money (I also didn’t totally grasp, at the time, the border patrol’s 95 year history of being thuggish white supremacist dirtbags). So when I caught shade about it for most of the next year, I shrugged as if to say, “Yeah, you’re right. It’s ridiculous.”
Since graduating in 2009, many of my friends have expressed regret at their choice of degree. Philosophy, English, history, women’s studies—all liberal arts degrees that did not translate directly into specific career skills, all “useless” when it came to entering the job market post-college. It was made worse by the economy we found ourselves in. Most of us had to take on crap jobs and live at home, and it’s easy during those nights of self-loathing in your childhood bedroom to blame your luck on a dumb choice of major.
I had even less of an excuse than that because I graduated into a terrible economy but without any student debt. My parents had helped me with undergrad. But then I went to grad school and racked up $70,000 in student loan debt in the worst economy in nearly a century to get a degree in human rights.
The move, most would agree, was a dumb one. At the time, I would’ve done about anything to get myself out of Cincinnati, so it’s safe to say that the degree was a shot in the dark. But I do not regret it. Why?
Most careers don’t give a shit about your education anyway.
I graduated undergrad with a career-oriented degree in journalism. It was my bad luck that the industry was collapsing at the exact time I graduated, but it was not a degree most would’ve thought of as “silly.” It taught me a code of professional ethics, tactics and techniques, and a set of basic skills that I could apply to a very specific career. It also helped me foster a set of connections with both professors, peers, and potential future employers. There was nothing in my degree that wasn’t useful.
I have since learned that I did not really need a degree to go into journalism. Yes—the jobs weren’t there for even seasoned professionals in 2009. But had I graduated ten years earlier, I could have just as easily gone to my hometown newspaper with some writing samples and gotten a shit job as a copywriter for the obituaries page. I could’ve used the four years I spent in college instead learning the trade. I could’ve worked my way up in the ranks of my local paper. Further down the road, I could’ve leveraged that into work at a national paper.
The end result wouldn’t have been much different.
When I did finally graduate college, I learned that my degree was more often a tick mark in my favor than it was a deciding factor in getting me a job. What got me every job I’ve had since graduation was a) my past experience and b) the work I presented to the employer.
There are obviously exceptions to this rule—degrees are not optional for doctors, lawyers, educators. But for a lot of us—myself included—they aren’t essential. And it may have even been better to forego college and get a foot in the door before the economy tanked. So the question becomes this: why seek out an education if you can get to the same place without spending the money?
Education is for your sake, not for the economy’s.
The cliche about liberal arts training is that it teaches you not what to think but how to think. In my journalism degree, the things I learned were mostly hard and fast rules—sets of professional ethics, rules of grammar and style, etc. It was a degree that consisted more of job training exercises rather than serious engagement with a field of thought. It was, ironically, primarily in my nonessential electives that I actually had my ways of thinking challenged.
In my human rights degree, however, I was brought in on an academic conversation. Our professor started our degree by writing “what are human rights?” on the board, and by the end of the class, had managed to dismantle our conceptions of what counted as a “human,” and what counted as “rights.”
What followed was basically a year of undermining our arguments about the fundamental dignity of being a human. It was a pretty emotionally exhausting thing to be studying. But by subjecting us to this ringer, it made us evaluate what we believed, shore up those beliefs, and learn how to argue them. Of the people who were in my program, two now work for the UN High Commission on Refugees, one is a fiery and eloquent Palestinian journalist, one is a fiery and eloquent American journalist, one worked in the Obama White House, one is a human rights lawyer in Pakistan, and a number of others have started their own businesses or non-profits.
Of the people I knew in my journalism degree, relatively few are still working in the field—most are still nibbling at its fringes by working as bloggers, advertisers, or “social media gurus,” (which, 90 percent of the time, means they were hired by people who don’t know how to use Facebook).
What’s more is that I got an immense amount of personal satisfaction out of my human rights degree. I had to become smarter to keep up with my classmates. I had to become more compassionate. I had to develop my sense of humor to survive some of the bleak conversations we had on a daily basis. But when I graduated, I leveraged my thesis into a nonprofit job. It opened up a world that I had simply never even thought about prior to my degree. And hey, look! I met my wife.
Contrary to everyone else’s experience, my “practical” degree ended up serving me just as well as my friends’ history and philosophy degrees served them in that it got me zero jobs. My “useless” master’s has put me on an actual career trajectory.
And it left me with a lot of debt. That, I’m told, is bad. About that:
Student debt sucks. It is not a good reason to feel ashamed.
When my parents graduated college in the early ’80s, they were able to pay their tuition by working summer jobs. If your parents couldn’t pay for your college back then, you could probably make up the difference with scholarships by working on campus. If you really, really had to you could take out student loans.
When I went into college in 2005, it was a different world. There were some in-state schools that I could get for under $10,000 per year, but I wanted pretty desperately to get out of Ohio—that would’ve cost me a minimum of $15,000 per year. Some colleges were up in the $30,000s. This was seen as ridiculous.
Now, 12 years later, the tuition (with room and board) at a high-end school like Harvard is $63,000. Ohio State (which would’ve been in-state for me) is $25,000. Out-of-state it would be $44,000. My alma mater, Penn State, is now $45,000.
This is not affordable for most people. I lucked out in having parents that could cover me, but if I’d been ten years younger, even if they’d saved in the same way, they would’ve been able to cover a much lower percentage of my schooling. If you are willing to accept that some kids want to get the fuck out of their home state (with good reason), and if you don’t accept that, just because a kid has poor parents, that they shouldn’t be able to go to the school of their choice, then you see the obvious problem here. A student loan is basically a bet on your future, and while it’s appalling that it’s a bet that has to be made, it’s understandable that any young kid would take that bet.
Now: my student loan is different. I chose this “useless” degree after the fact. It was not because my parents were poor. Should I feel ashamed?
The reason is simple. Our economy in the United States has failed to care for its students. It has failed to provide affordable opportunities for them. It has failed to provide affordable education to its young people. That is the real reason for shame here—instead of investing in its future, our country has instead chosen to stack the deck in the favor of the already-rich and already-old. Our government is like the opposite of Robin Hood.
In his excellent book, Debt: The First 5000 Years, radical anthropologist David Graeber wrote:
I knew what I was doing when I took out my loan, and I will accept the financial consequences that comes with having a lot of student loan debt. Unless I want to cripple my ability to have any fun at all for ten years, this means paying an Income-Based Rate for 25 years. After 25 years, the balance will be forgiven, assuming the government keeps to its word, which—yeah, fingers crossed. By the time it’s paid off, my daughter will be going to college. And, since I won’t have been saving an additional $200-500 a month for the past 25 years, I will likely take out a loan in my name for her to go to school. And when that time is up, I will likely be dead.
Unless I suddenly make a lot of money, this is what’s going to happen. It’s going to suck. But my only alternative is to not live the life I want to live, to not give my daughter the life she wants to live. And I refuse to feel like a leech or a failure for choosing myself and my family over capitulating to a failed system.
Our economy does not reflect our values at all.
A society that views the study of the basic dignity of humanity as “pointless” is a society that doesn’t have its values in order. It’s the same society that pays my sister—a social worker who is genuinely saving lives—kinda crap wages, while paying people with meaningless positions that contribute basically nothing to the world (like the entire fields of advertising and marketing) insane amounts of money.
This is not a new state of things. In John Steinbeck’s 1945 novel, Cannery Row, the character Doc says:
This state of things has extended to the seat of the presidency—who would want to spend time around someone like Donald Trump? What moments of happiness or human warmth could you possibly derive from his company? And yet those traits that make him a repellent person are what’s seen as “success” in the eyes of many Americans.
I do not particularly want to buy into that definition of success. If that is what success looks like, let me be a failure. And if the system is designed to take the boot off his coattails and place it firmly on my throat, so be it—I can be a realist. I can deal with it. But do not expect me to feel shame at having the boot at my throat. I will not look at the violence being inflicted on myself and my generation and search for how it is that I am to blame.
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