Defending the poetry major

Photo by Annie Abdalla


Pity the poor poetry major, long treated with snotty sarcasm as a head-in-the-clouds idealist. “What will you do with that degree?” people ask, shaking their heads at the scholar’s naivete.

Okay, few people dispute that the economy is tough right now. Tough for experienced employees, tough for many small business owners, tough for newly-minted college graduates. I know this first-hand, and I deal most often with the youngest age group I’ve mentioned—undergraduates.

There are hundreds of articles, blogs, and opinion pieces offering tips to students or bemoaning the price of a college degree (and I grant you, the cost is appalling) or telling undergraduates that they need to specialize in certain career areas. The New York Times, for example, ran this article, which warns students away from majoring in such coursework as history, philosophy, and poetry.

Another pop-journalism site suggests that graduates learn “to put your useless degree to use.” Although there are some reasonable, general ideas here, these brief tip-sheets operate under the unlikely premise that we can tell today’s 18-year-old what he or she will need to know in order to be securely employed in, say, 2045.

Mild contrarian that I am, I defend the poetry major. Students have to be diligent to achieve good grades in the poetry track, diligence being just as necessary there as in the so-called hard sciences, which also require analysis (they use more math but require similarly solid logic chops). Poetry is difficult to study; the subject requires keen reading comprehension skills, a good foundation in rhetoric, the ability to analyze, to communicate, and to connect diverse disciplines, cultures, and texts. The same goes for history and philosophy: these are truly challenging areas of study, not good choices for the slacker or the faint of heart.

The people who choose the humanities majors are often accused of living in ivory towers, but that’s a stereotype. Most of them don’t end up in academia. Some of them are entrepreneurs, some are lawyers, some are doctors. Poetry major Ross Martin became a Viacom executive; though that is probably not a terribly common career outcome for poetry folk, humanities majors in general end up in some form of management position 20% of the time, according to research by Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce.

For a look at the career outcomes, percent employed full-time or part-time, and job earnings for humanities majors, see:

(Link to GU’s CEW on Humanities degree earners)

Yes, it is true that in terms of earnings, the poetry major or history major is unlikely to outperform the person who has a Petroleum Engineering degree. I have to ask, however, given the limited supply of petroleum we’re told exists on earth, where those petroleum engineers will find work in 2045. And job satisfaction—earning enough to get by and feeling satisfied with one’s work and contributions to society—is, while less easily measurable, a byproduct of an excellent education that keeps minds sharp, hearts engaged, and communities intact over the long haul—including during tough times.

The world and technology move rapidly. I typed my undergraduate papers on a manual typewriter and, graduating during the hideous recession of 1979, got jobs that paid like menial labor but allowed me to sit at desks and utilize my spelling, vocabulary, and arts analysis skills, which led to jobs in typesetting that taught me computer skills back in…well, let’s just say “8-inch floppy disk” and leave it at that. Did I have any idea I would be blogging on the cloud using a PC in 2012? No. Have I been able to learn new things by using logic, persistence, research, and creative thinking? Why, yes. Thank you, humanities coursework.

Critics of many stripes claim colleges need to focus more on career development through the creation of specialist tracks. Careerism is a fine concept for a capitalist society, and I have no problem with offering better certification programs for specialists of all kinds; but careerism per se is not what a college education is “for.” A college education serves, when it is effective, to broaden a person’s experiences, deepen a person’s thoughts, and to develop in that person a versatile range of essential critical-thinking and problem-solving skills. Those skills are applicable to many jobs. An excellent gaming programmer I’m acquainted with says his two years of intensive philosophy and literature study helped him enormously when he switched to the technology track: it’s all logic and analysis, and creative thinking is what allows a programmer to excel beyond data-managing. Here’s an article that explains a bit more about the usefulness of the liberal arts education as it pertains to business.

When the job market is tight, we need problem solvers and creative, critical thinkers. It will not matter what these people majored in as undergraduates; what will matter is how flexible they are at responding to the changes around them…or at instituting changes themselves.

Poetry majors can do that for us.


6 comments on “Defending the poetry major

  1. . . . there are POETRY majors? In all seriousness, one pleasant consequence of pushing the responsibility for an educated workforce up to graduate school might be that people could begin to look at undergraduate degrees a little less maniacally, and then go career-specific at the graduate level. As long as money remains top priority, I don’t see that happening, however. True or false, people will gravitate towards the majors that promise the most lucrative jobs.


  2. Gravitate they may, but many students find they are not ready for the educational rigor demanded by the lucrative jobs (engineering, theoretical computer science, biochem). Many undergrads do not realize how many humanities majors get into law school; philosophy, history and English studies are excellent training grounds for LSATs. Of course, these days law may not be as much of a sure thing for income-generation, either.

    Grad school is probably not the answer…

    One thing that dismays me is when students who cannot get the grades required to stay in the “lucrative job track” STILL disparage students in the humanities majors. Worse yet when it is advisors or faculty who do so.

    I will close my mouth now before I step in a land mine by dissing the various business majors, etc….


    • Right. Perhaps it’s not a matter of which major is better in some way, but rather that no major cheapen education any further with promises of fast degrees and big rewards. All academia has suffered from the consumerization of higher ed. Education, especially higher ed, is not supposed to be some obstacle to be overcome as quickly as possible in order to get to something else.


  3. Excellent points, Ann – forwarding this to my daughter. Love reading your blog – and your work!! All the best, Sharon


  4. […] It is the Year of the Horse, and I’m on my high horse again about the value of the humanities and the liberal arts education. […]


  5. Laijon Liu says:

    I thought study is for what we love, and love gives one purpose for coming hardship on his road.
    how about not worry about the major one chooses for career security, kids in college still young, they can afford mistake, and they have opportunity to correct, before they hit 40 they can just go try to pursue something they love for their life, instead of memorizing boring numbers formulas and program syntax in front of their monitor for 4 years, and come out counting big corps’ wallets forever. it’s their prime to chase what they love, something meaningful to them, some great memory they will cherish when they are gray, that they glad they tried, they glad they didn’t let go their chance.
    Young people should be brave, positive, don’t let the newspaper economy and teachers and parents intimidate them, go places, see some cities, discover new land, meet more people, bathe in some new spa… if somehow they find out thru the process that they are not poet, artist, composer material or they change mind, they can steer away to learn some pc accounting stuff be White Collar slaves to serve market system society for their rest of their dim life, but they will always cherish that golden experience that top their prom.
    People need more American spirit to live or survive nowadays, parents used to pump up their kids chant Go Big or Go Home, Don’t Stop Til You Get It… but now we are just teaching our kids how to play smart, safe game, be coward, learn to be a high pay slave.
    No wonder there are not many good new poems nowadays, poets are headstrong, not cost measurer, never afraid of failure, they don’t eat bread and rice, they only drink wine and liquor, they borrow or beg to buy liquor, and they die singing, suicide or sacrifice, and their flesh to worms but their song still rings. If kids have such bones, we have to cheer them on, get them mic and stage, they are not mortgage payment material, working suits don’t fit them, they are not caged birds or house cats 🙂 their verse should be embolden gold plated hanging on living room wall, not head stone of a tomb:)
    we got to let peacocks fly!


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