Tuesday, February 3, 2009


A few years ago I was meeting with my bishop, a man who I hardly knew, and he asked me what I was studying. When I told him Humanities he replied "Oh. So you'll be graduating with no marketable skills." I felt insulted, and a little angry and thought, "No, sir. Unfortunately I won't be able to work in your doctor's office. Oh well."

I'm seeing now despite how rude this man was to say this to me, he was, after all, right. I've gained a pretty good education, maybe not the best in the world, but I've definitely had some pretty remarkable moments of clarity and felt that I had grown intellectually and spiritually because of the work I've been doing for the last seven years or so, but I certainly have few marketable skills and no trade to speak of. I think this a bit of a shame. I'm very happy for my education but I wish I had a skill. And I don't mean I wish I'd gone to business or law school or become a dental hygienist or something, but I do wish I had become a horticulturalist or a chef, something which requires real skill and care and work. Because that's what I'm missing in my life. Good, honest, hard physical labor. Being educated has made me lazy.

I'm beginning to see how the academic world is shortchanging the working class. I mean, from its conception the university system has strived to educate the elite, the people who will make the decisions in government or who already have the means and support to spend the rest of their lives elucidating other elite on the workings of the world or of art. We've kept this system but have now insisted that all can enter the great gleaming halls of academia. Only, those of us who come from the working class have dreams of elitism, of being the premier scholar in a field, researching important topics all over the world, being allowed in the oldest and finest libraries, handling the greatest works, writing about the most obscure piece of art. And we're told that if we work hard enough that that will be us some day. And so we work and study and learn all we can about history and art and science and then comes the day that we graduate and they shuffle us out of our marble halls and into a world where if we don't work a 9-5 job we don't eat. Well, it's either that or spend another 5 to 7 years working and striving for the coveted Ph.D only to find that we still have to eat and no one except for small handfull of people see any value in our life's work. We struggle to find a job that will offer us tenure. The universities are more concerned with getting great grants than they are with our work or what we could offer the students, and so we must produce. We must make a good name for our schools or else we'll be booted out.

I don't want it. I still dream of being allowed in the elitist world, and I've tasted it. I want that, but I don't think the suffering is worth it. It sounds like a very lonely job anyway.

And so I've an education and no training. What do I do? Because of my education I'm more self aware and so more aware of my useless self. I want to work. I want to create something, but I don't know how. I know how to tear things apart and examine each and every fragment, but I don't know how to put things to gether to make something beautiful. I can't envision a whole out of parts, but only the parts of a whole. I think by avoiding the world of the working class I've walked myself right into it. I'll work in an office for the rest of my life, grateful for the paycheck, hoping that I can take a couple weeks off to go on a little trip every once in a while.

Why didn't I become a horticulturalist or a chef? When I was in high school I loved learning about plants, I loved planting little gardens, I loved cooking. I read an entire cookbook once, cover to cover, and learned all the techniques I use now. I want to take a book binding class and a stain glass class and a sewing class. I want to make things that people will love.

But, I have the rest of my life to do those things. Right now I have an education for which I am grateful, but I was also born to the working class and despite my pension for laziness I do know how to work and maybe someday I'll be a gardener or something. I like to think that an education doesn't need to limit me to some sort of elitist post. When I was in Italy I suspected that the bus drivers were educated and valued education, that the street sweepers and the shopkeepers were also educated because I heard them talk about very deep topics and saw everyone with a book. They took pride in their jobs, but were not defined by their careers. At the end of the work day they put the work world behind them and enjoyed their time with family and friends and books. I have never seen so many people read in public places in my life, and book shops practically on every corner. That's what I want my life to be like. Educated but useful. And so that's what I'm going to strive for now. Hopefully I'll be trained as a teacher and do that for a couple years. Then maybe I'll be trained to do something else or maybe I'll learn the skills I've always wanted to and make a living creating lovely things for people. We'll see.


  1. I think this education vs. working dilemma is a valid concern for our generation.

  2. i can totally identify with your post jasie. as much as i love having done humanities every two days I wish I would have studied photography, graphic design or cinematography or something. anyhow, i still do not loose hope that someday i will be able to learn about all those things.

    i particularly liked your last paragraph. i think is funny how you and i have been thinking a lot about the same things. anyhow, i have also been thinking that as much as I would like to have an enjoyable job, I do not want it to be my life. i want to travel, read books, take pictures and do whatever the hell I feel like doing at the moment. that way my life will be more enjoyable.

  3. I've felt this way on more than one ocassion. But I do not think that you--or I--lack in maketable skills simply because we have been educated in the humanities. The problem is that other people don't recognize the training a liberal arts major receives as a result of their studies. We are complex and analytical thinkers, we are able to take a lot of information, complicated plots, centuries of history, works of art, etc. and compare and contrast them, boil them down into understandable and digestable summaries, and write clearly and consisely. In my experience, these skills are the most important things you can process in doing any number of jobs. (Probably not as a chef though. Or a gardener, I'd imagine.) But of all the fancy people I met with fancy jobs in D.C. I knew I could do most of their jobs because I am a competent, intelligent person. Every job requires on the job training because every job is unique. So it has always frustrated me to no end that a prospective employer would disregard me because I don't have some throw-away degree in marketing or communications or business, even though I can do the job as well, if not better, than the people with degrees in those fields. Why must we always suffer for studying something we loved?

    Sometimes I secretly wish that I had just done something practical like accounting or zoology or gone to culinary school. But there's still time to explore other options. Still, I'm grateful of the education I have, even if I have to re-remind myself of the fact every so often.

  4. Liz, I was just thinking that the other day and it made me feel better. Maybe we were trained for academia, but we gained a very valuable education to offer employers.