One year after I graduated from the University of St Andrews, I was unemployed. Meanwhile, my peers proudly displayed keys to their new flats, sported freshly-pressed business suits to begin their careers at noteworthy companies, flashed engagement rings in magazine-worthy photoshoots, and hung Master’s degrees upon their walls. I did not apply to any Master’s program for the following autumn, my final months at university so haunted by anxiety that I had little intellectual energy to spare. So, I began to apply for various jobs, even ones as small as part-time bookseller positions at Barnes and Noble. Soon, though, I accrued enough letters of rejection that I could stitch them together like the panes of a patchwork quilt. During this time, I did not even possess a bank account.
In throwing all of my effort behind a degree I believed would put me so far ahead in the world, I failed to see just how far behind I truly was.
While the so-called “entry-level” workforce remains highly inaccessible, reflecting on my first encounter with unemployment forces me to realize that most of the obstacles I encountered were of my own making. Yet I never consider my choice of an undergraduate degree to be the underlying cause of these struggles. Despite my time in the freelance and entry-level workforce, I remain an outspoken advocate for the value of an education in the humanities. This perspective consequently chafes against the arguments levied by conservative Canadian media personality Tasha Kheiriddin in “Engaging the Next Generation: Issues, Ideals, and Academia”, a chapter from her 2005 book Rescuing Canada’s Right: Blueprint for a Conservative Revolution co-written with Canadian journalist Adam Daifallah.
According to Kheiriddin and Daifallah, “Student groups complain incessantly about the cost of higher education and the agony of paying back loans. They should realize that it’s much easier to pay back a loan when your degree actually qualifies you for a job” (“Engaging the Next Generation” 129). Specifically, Kheiriddin and Daifallah seem to condemn university degrees in the humanities that offer courses on diverse subjects such as gender — a significantly more fluid concept in 2020 than in 2005, when their book was published — monsters, and witchcraft. However, Kheiriddin and Daifallah’s rather condescending argument falls short on two accounts. First, though the pair were writing fifteen years ago, what they fail to consider is the potential for technology to become increasingly pervasive in the minds of youths. From a now-contemporary standpoint, technology radically changes the character of the classroom as children are given tablets from primary school through to their graduation. For example, in many of the high schools I worked for as a substitute teacher in 2017 and 2018, most reviews for tests and examinations take the form of a game played between the teacher and the students using their tablets and other interactive software. This example evidences the alterations educators have made to the traditional structure of the classroom to accommodate the increasing integration of technology, particularly smartphones, with the minds of both America and Canada’s youth (Twenge 2017).
The young people entering into institutions of higher education are thus dependent on intense stimulation, as scintillating screens influence many of their lives (“Engaging the Next Generation” 120), including those moments spent in the classroom. However, what Kheiriddin and Daifallah consider of “dubious academic value” (“Engaging the Next Generation” 128) may offer an inviting and engaging path for the students of today to traverse on their way to developing their intellect. Such unorthodox topics possess the potential to capture the imagination and subsequently stimulate increased attention for the content. While more traditional scholars could argue that using critical notions of monstrosity, to maintain Kheiriddin and Daifallah’s example, in such a way may cheapen academic study, the value in this instance is an offer to bridge the gap between scholarship and the highly stimulating worlds of today’s youth. Once academics establish this link, perhaps students will grow more receptive to the development of the skills intrinsic to success in these humanities courses, skills such as identifying the critical concerns of a text and crafting articulate responses to various ideas through discussion and written arguments. “[D]ubious academic value” (“Engaging the Next Generation” 128), indeed.
When Kheiriddin and Daifallah charge students to reconsider how their “degree actually qualifies [them] for a job” (“Engaging the Next Generation” 129), they fail to register the ways in which the curriculum structure of a humanities degree cultivates professional development, particularly in graduate study, which signifies the second weakness of their argument. I will acknowledge that privileging any degree ahead of work in the trades does nothing to alleviate this debate. Rather, ignoring or even demeaning those whose skills are not compatible with the traditional classroom model of education only further entrenches this discussion in problematic ideas. Yet for the purposes of this discussion, I will focus on the debate between “employable” and “non-employable” degrees that underscore such vehement critiques of humanities scholarship.
While working as a substitute teacher, and indeed at other moments in my professional journey, I noticed an unsettling trend. In a full classroom, students would prefer to text their friend a desk or two away from them rather than speak to one another. When I worked with any student, he or she rarely met my eye (not including those students with diagnoses that may alter such interpersonal skills). More disturbingly, if I were to speak directly to a student, I was often met with an uncomfortable silence, an outright refusal to engage in conversation with me. What I began to realize was the absence of interpersonal and verbal communication skills as curriculums and external bodies privilege STEM-based learning ahead of the humanities. Once, while attempting to get a class of advanced placement English literature students engaged in a discussion on William Shakespeare’s Macbeth, a student I was fortunate to possess a rapport with raised his hand and said, “Miss Sadler, no offense, but none of us really care.” These were to be the students entering university the following autumn.
In her article “Why ‘worthless’ humanities degrees may set you up for life”, journalist Amanda Ruggeri consults former Forbes technology reporter George Anders about the common misconceptions surrounding humanities degrees in the workplace, specifically in the professional world of “Big Tech.” Ruggeri writes:
Anders says that Silicon Valley ‘was consumed with this idea that there was no education but Stem [sic] education’ […] But when he talked to hiring managers at the biggest tech companies, he found a different reality. ‘Uber was picking up psychology majors to deal with unhappy riders and drivers. Opentable was hiring English majors to bring data to restauranteurs to get them excited about what data could do for their restaurants,’ he says (2019).
As Anders observes, the value of an education in the humanities rests not simply in the content of one’s study. Rather, it is necessary to consider the skills, skills that are applicable to any professional sphere, one cultivates while earning such a degree. In my academic and professional experience, such capabilities include but are not limited to:
- Analyzing the meaning of any body of text and identifying its key arguments
- Articulating one’s perspective in a discussion and negotiating conflicting ideologies
- Collaborating with one’s colleagues (fellow students and professors alike) to peer review work or further develop one’s research
- Conducting independent research using a diverse range of sources
- Crafting clear, concise pieces of written work to exhibit mastery of any language one writes in
- Networking with academic professionals in the classroom, at extra-curricular events, via email, and at academic conferences
I contend that the effectiveness of any professional organization significantly diminishes if its members cannot demonstrate a command of such interpersonal and communicative skills. As a direct challenge to Kheiriddin and Daifallah, what about these curricular foundations in the humanities does not “actually qualif[y]” (“Engaging the Next Generation” 129) someone for gainful employment?
However, I believe that it is crucial to consider the value of an education in the humanities beyond its financial risks or rewards. As previously discussed, allegedly “non-useful” courses in seemingly “ridiculous” subjects, including fairy tales and monsters (some areas of my personal research interest) may prove a useful tool for stimulating renewed interest in academic scholarship, particularly in the fields of literature. Perhaps this is what struck me so deeply about Kheiriddin’s perspective, considering that her daughter, Aria, “considers herself a changeling” (“How Autism can Make a Better World” 2:40).
In her 2017 TEDx talk “How Autism can Make a Better World: 5 Things I Learned from a Fairy,” Kheiriddin uses her testimony as a mother of a child with Autism Spectrum Disorder to discuss certain issues in Canada’s education system. Kheiriddin encourages listeners to not “shut out the unusual because you would be missing out on an opportunity” (“How Autism can Make a Better World” 10:12), as if in a plea to prospective employers of individuals who register on the autistic spectrum.
Kheiriddin seems to value the unorthodox as it manifests in her daughter, and treasures her daughter’s intense imagination. Would not her daughter in the very least be interested in, if not benefit from, an educational institution that does not drill employability and marketability into its students but instead cultivates their specialized interests, including interests in fairies? Kheiriddin’s intense critique of academia and scholarship in the humanities came in 2005, and her daughter was born four years later. One can only hope that she has since altered her critical perspective in light of the new world view her daughter has exposed her to; a sixth lesson, perhaps, learned from a fairy.
Though I do not register on the autistic spectrum, I myself was something of a changeling child. I felt as though the world’s most fantastic things danced at the edge of my vision, tempting me, so I trained my gaze far into the distance to witness them. I played by myself, I read stories of adventure and daring, and I created my own world out of the sticks and pebbles of my collections. I would not be the scholar I am today without the support of parents who saw that my unusual imagination would thrive only in the humanities, that this path would entail a fruitful life for their wee changeling. I am also fortunate to have encountered academic professionals who believe in my projects, as steeped in fairy magic as they are. Perhaps what the world needs, particularly in times such as now, is a little more magic and mystery.
“How Autism can Make a Better World: 5 Things I Learned from a Fairy” by Tasha for TEDxKelowna.” YouTube, uploaded by TEDx Talks, 6 Jul. 2017, youtube.com/watch?v=HALkEa7sgTU. Accessed 14 Mar. 2020.
Kheiriddin, Tasha and Adam Daifallah. “Engaging the Next Generation: Issues, Ideals, and Academia.” Rescuing Canada’s Right: Blueprint for a Conservative Revolution by Tasha Kheiriddin and Adam Daifallah, John Wiley & Sons Canada, Ltd., 2005, 119-139.
Rackham, Arthur. “Fairy Stealing a Child.” 1908. pinterest.com/pin/138907969727761464/. Accessed 17 Mar. 2020.
Ruggeri, Amanda. “Why ‘worthless’ humanities degrees may set you up for life.” Worklife BBC, The BBC, 1 Apr. 2019, bbc.com/worklife/article/20190401-why-worthless-humanities-degrees-may-set-you-up-for-life. Accessed 16 Mar. 2020.
Twenge, Jean M. “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?” The Atlantic, The Atlantic Monthly Group, Sept. 2017, theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2017/09/has-the-smartphone-destroyed-a-generation/534198/. Accessed 15 Mar. 2020.
Yeats, W.B. “The Stolen Child.” Poets.org. American Academy of Poets, poets.org/poem/stolen-child. Accessed 16 Mar. 2020.