The event was titled “My English Major and My Career,” and if you could get past the clunkiness, I suppose the name was probably meant to be reassuring—the suggestion being that having the former doesn’t preclude you from having the latter. And to prove its point, Princeton rounded up 11 alumni, all former English majors, among them several professors, publishers, and editors, as well as two Pulitzer Prize winners. There was even a food distributor and self-professed businessman, for good measure.
They seemed a cheerful enough bunch. All of them were on the far side of 50, comfortably ensconced in their chosen careers, no one noticeably suffering from poverty, unemployment, barista-hood, the usual shit that people often warn me comes, free of charge, with an English degree.
Most of the time, when adults ask the question that they all ask eventually—or if they’re you’re parents, incessantly—“What do you want to do after you graduate?” I laugh a little, like it was a silly thing to ask, then mumble something about not being sure, about how it’s better not to have a concrete plan with the job market the way it is, about how I’m still young enough that the question isn’t much on my mind. But I’ve noticed that the people who ask the question have been finding my response less and less convincing as time goes on. Maybe it’s that as graduation begins to cast longer shadows over the remainder of my time at Princeton, not knowing what I’m going to do afterwards seems less carefree than careless. But I’m more inclined to think it’s because even I don’t much believe my reply anymore.
Yes, folks, you heard it here first—the English major is worried about his job prospects. So whether I not I was going to write this article, I was for sure going to check out the panel, not least because it’s almost unheard of for Princeton to sponsor a career event dedicated to English majors. The closest equivalent is the alternative career fair, recently redubbed the “HireTigers Meetup,” which means that whoever is naming these things is really getting paid too much. But this tends reductively to define the word “alternative” as everything that isn’t consulting, finance, or tech.
This event was something different: an acknowledgement by the university that there are students out there who are taking the advice they’re given, to follow their passions, and who are all the more lost for it. And sure enough, I showed up to the event as it was starting, and found a packed room; within a few minutes, there were crowds standing in the back. Nearly everyone in the room, myself included, had brought notebooks, into which they wrote dutifully throughout the panel, just in case one of the panelists unexpectedly uttered the secret to job success.
To that end, the panelists had some good, if familiar advice for landing a job with a degree in the humanities. Various people commented that the ability to construct a decent sentence is always desirable to employers, that majoring in English helps you to understand people, that the skills you use to craft a literary argument are the same ones you use to make a business proposal.
Despite the fact that the panelists worked in a number of different industries, each requiring its own set of skills that may or may not overlap with the skills that the English major is supposed to develop, they did have one thing in common. More than their precise enunciation and their tweed jackets, these people all spoke of their careers as if they were, in a sense, betrayals of their true calling—namely, reading and writing about books.
Neil Rudenstine, the current chairman of Artstor and former president of Harvard, said rather modestly that most of his career was spent “distracted by academic administration.” Annalyn Swan, who won a Pulitzer for her biography of Willem de Kooning, mentioned that she “still slums it a little bit and writes for Vanity Fair.” Even the writer of the group, Richard Preston, said he felt like a sell out; he introduced himself as “an author, which is a pretentious term for someone who writes for money.”
It seems that an unintended side effect of becoming an English major is an aversion to paid work. Or, as Roger Berlind (yes, that Berlind) so nicely, if unintentionally put it: “making money had no interest in me.” It was an easy thing for Berlind to say, considering his decades spent working at a hugely successful Wall Street firm, but there’s still some truth to his statement—people who choose to major in English, or any of the other humanities for that matter, generally don’t do so for financial reasons. That’s not to say that they’re better people than those who do take future earnings into account when choosing a major. Simply that, for any number of reasons, money is more important to some than it is to others—and if you’re one of those “others,” it’s not always clear why. Often, all you know is that there’s some class you actually enjoy, one precept where, rather than sitting quietly and waiting for someone else to break the silence, you have things to say, maybe even more things to say than there’s time to say them. If that class is economics, there’s a decent chance it’ll lead to a lucrative job somewhere down the line; and if it’s, say, English, then better luck next time.
There’s that old joke that if you choose a job you love, you’ll never work a day in your life, because that field isn’t hiring. And that was certainly a palpable anxiety in the room, the knowledge that the careers English traditionally feeds into—journalism, publishing, and so on—are supposedly disappearing. Susan Mizruchi, a professor at Boston University and the group’s sole academic, made the point that, even if that’s all true, Princeton graduates probably don’t have to worry much about finding a job, at least for the foreseeable future. She argued the Princeton allows students to make counterintuitive moves, such as going to grad school in the humanities while “most people are running from the prospect.”
We have advantages that other schools can’t provide their students while the humanities are withering, sure. I’m definitely happy about it, even if I’m also a little alarmed that an English professor so casually brushed off the question of the subject’s slow decay. But I was at least comforted by the fact that, several decades after graduation, the panelists could look back fondly to their undergraduate years—the all-nighters spent editing in 48 University Place, the pet projects that grew into senior theses, even the books they read for classes—and not find them a waste of time.
The other day, I was sitting in a psych precept, my mind on some planet far away from the windowless basement room in which class was taking place. Some signal from the universe, or maybe just the sudden memory that the class had a price tag attached, caused me to zone back in for a second. We were talking about OCD, about selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, about a bunch of other shit that I have to learn before the midterm next week. I couldn’t help but think to myself, as if I were back in high school, “why am I learning this right now?”
As far as psychology goes, I still don’t have an answer. And when it comes to English classes, well, I don’t really have an answer either. I know I enjoy them more, but I also know that they’re not training me for a future job, or improving my networking skills (not that I have any to begin with). All they’re doing is teaching me to read and write, to understand and empathize, to think about the problems of other people, even those who aren’t real, and see what insight I can gain. Even if I can’t give a satisfactory answer to the question of why I’m learning all this right now, it doesn’t matter. One of the few articulable reasons that I enjoy my English major is that it doesn’t restrict its focus merely to answers—sometimes the questions people ask are more revealing than the answers they give.
The question of what to do with your life after you graduate is certainly valid—we all know we’re leaving this place soon enough—but that’s not to say it should eclipse the question of what to do with your life while you’re still here. The sociologist Max Weber had a theory that America’s protestant roots instilled us with a capitalist work ethic, one that equates productivity with goodness, that makes work the god at the head of our American altar. It’s always worth remembering that Princeton’s protestant roots run parallel to America’s; the school was founded in 1746 to train ministers. It’s not a stretch to say that protestant strain still pervades our campus culture, from its neurotic obsession with productivity to its insistence that we prepare ourselves for our college afterlife, the post-graduation purgatory of adulthood.
That’s all well and good, but I say we save the religion for Sundays, a day of rest everywhere but here, where instead we make the traditional pilgrimage to Firestone. Or maybe we dress in our Sunday best and congregate in Dillon gym for one job fair or another. Most Sundays, while it’s still warm enough, I’ll forgo the rituals and take a novel with me to some quiet, sunny place on campus. Depending on the book, sometimes it’ll feel like labor, trudging through pages as if through wet cement, some tribute I pay to a higher power who revels in my suffering, usually my English professor. But sometimes it won’t at all. I can dream of not working a day in my life, but for the moment, I’ll settle for a day off every now and then.