Schooled in the dark arts

Ruthlessly competitive workplaces hold no terrors for battle-hardened English literature graduates, says Christian Lander

April 1, 2010

I am an English literature major. A lot of people will tell you that a degree in English is "useless", "a waste of time" or a "one-way ticket to perpetual misery and unemployment". And while these may be true (especially the part about unemployment) many people forget the true value of an English literature degree.

No, it's not learning how to appreciate literature or any of that critical-thinking nonsense. Rather, a degree in English literature prepares you for a life where you will be constantly judged, filled with self-doubt and surrounded by pretentious people you dislike but pretend to like for political and social purposes.

In other words, it is perfect preparation for the modern workplace.

First, an English literature degree imbues you with lowered expectations about your job prospects when you graduate. Every day you are reminded by your professors, peers and parents that the possibility of your finding a good job after graduation is next to nil.

I feel sorry for people with degrees in engineering or computer science. Their bar for success has been set unfairly high: six-figure salaries, stock options, bridges not falling down. This is all too much pressure.

As English majors, if we are able to avoid starvation or a debilitating heroin addiction during our first five years out of university, we are considered to be a moderate success. By the time we finish our degree, our employment expectations are rock bottom, which makes us excellent candidates for entry-level positions in virtually any field that doesn't require mathematics.

But I assure you that once we've secured that entry-level position, we will move up the corporate ladder exceptionally quickly - that is unless we succumb to the aforementioned heroin or starvation problems. The reason why English majors will move up the chain quicker than their co-workers is that they have a built-in, hard-wired need to prove that they are the smartest people in the office.

This need comes from the thrashings we received from our professors for mixing up the work of Jacques Lacan and Jacques Derrida. OK, maybe the beatings were just at my university. But I can tell you that a postmodern beating hurts just as much as a modern one. In fact, it may well hurt more because in the end it means nothing; at least a modernist beating had a purpose.

Now, chances are that if you got the joke I was making in the preceding paragraph, you think I'm reasonably intelligent. If you didn't get the joke I was making in the preceding paragraph, then you, too, probably think I'm intelligent. If you did get the joke and didn't think it was funny, then you are probably a postgraduate.

During your time in university you will encounter some of the smartest, most pretentious people on the face of the Earth. All of them will judge you based on your tastes and how much you've read. They will determine you to be an equal, an inferior or a threat - the last being the most coveted category.

All of your time will be taken up with reading, watching films and trying desperately to insert a reference into conversation that your fellow students cannot catch. Beyond that, there is the ultimate dream of catching a fellow English major mid-lie about a book they've read or a film they've seen.

While this may seem to be nothing more than pretentious posturing to appear intelligent, it reveals the arts student's undying need to prove that they are better than the person next to them. And really, what skill could be more useful in the modern workplace? I know I wouldn't trust a multimillion-dollar account to someone who doesn't know the difference between George Eliot and George Sand.

For the record, it is the dream of every English major that their promotion will one day be contingent on knowing the difference between George Eliot and George Sand.

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