A Career in the Liberal Arts

I have a liberal arts BA myself: in History. I got it from an excellent department in a first rate Canadian university. I was privileged to receive that education. I am a better, more intelligent person for it. The real purpose of a liberal arts education is not to give you some piece of paper to wave around. Nor is it to force rote memorization of trivia and so called facts. At its best, it teaches you how to think for yourself. How to process information and interpret the world around you in a meaningful way.

However, none of this means that getting such an education is necessarily in everyone’s best interest. Sadly, it is a luxury. If you have to go into a bunch of debt in order to get your BA, I think you are making a big mistake.

I was lucky and blessed that my father paid for my degree. I had to work to support myself, and I worked like a bastard, but thanks to him I was able to finish my time in university with no more than a couple of thousand dollars of bank debt. And here’s the kicker: even given all this, in a strict cost/benefit analyses, getting that degree was not really a great idea.

I went to university late (22), and thanks to my failed gambit into honors as a precursor to a master’s, it took me six years to finish. So there went my twenties! I finished school with ten years of pumping gas and fixing tires on my resume and a degree that didn’t qualify me for anything. Yes, there are jobs to pursue (archives management and government work) but there’s a glut of applicants. It’s like the fucking Hunger Games out there; a tooth and nail fight to land a gig in bureaucracies that will devour your soul.

To be clear: I’m not complaining here. I went in with my eyes open. When my dad told me he’d pay for school, I made the choice to learn what I wanted because that’s what I wanted to learn. I’m not sorry I did. But at the point where I was finishing that exhausting marathon, I pulled my head up and looked around to see that my prospects were not good.

I was tired. I wanted to make some money. But how? Any viable possibility required more school. Teacher? Two more years. Librarian? Two more years. Get a trade? Two more years, and then competing with people either ten years younger, or with years of experience. As well, when applying for jobs that don’t require a university degree, having one is a serious detriment. While you may not be qualified for anything, employers think you’re overqualified for them; that the second something better comes along, you are going to bail on them. Are they wrong?

So I went to Japan to teach English. That has worked out well for me. But there are consequences. I don’t get to see my niece and nephew grow up. I don’t get to spend time with friends and family. I do get to learn what life is like as a visible minority in a xenophobic country.

There are serious trade offs. Again, I’ve made them with my eyes open and I don’t have any regrets in this regard.

Yes, there is intrinsic value to a liberal arts education. I really value mine. But that value comes at a price. My scenario is basically what anyone getting such an education is facing. If you are a trust fund baby, or somehow have a job waiting for you when you get out, or already have a trade and are educating yourself for your own sake, then fill your boots! But if you’re loading on tens of thousands of dollars of debt to put yourself in this situation, then, I’m sorry to say, you are making a serious mistake.

It’s the shits, but university was never something that was meant for everyone. It was a luxury and a privilege. Liberal arts programs were designed for people set to inherit and manage family wealth and position.

So what happened? Call me paranoid, but I think that our governments and financial institutions have figured out a new take on the feudal system. They can’t have slaves, and serf peasants are out, so indentured servitude through an institutionalized system of debt is the next best thing. With this, they can keep bleeding us for our whole fucking lives.

But how to get people into that debt? Why, by convincing them they must take it on to fulfill their every dream. The mortgage for that lovely house. The credit cards for all those gizmals you just have to have. The student loan for the education you need to be competitive. With realtors, bankers, and universities telling you whatever you want to hear to get you giving them your money.

Debt is serfdom. Don’t enter it lightly, is all I am saying.

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