Back when I was an undergrad, all English majors had to take an introduction to the major that, in addition to actual useful information like research strategies and essay structure, afforded the professors in charge of our two concentrations — education and technical writing — the chance to do a little sales pitch. The professor in charge of our technical writing concentration — a certified asshole — thought it was incredibly clever to bring in printouts of job searches for “poet” that only listed fry cooks as a result…because that’s how you become a poet — you apply through Monster.com at any of one of the local poet-ing companies in your area that definitely exist and not just for the purposes of that old man’s tortured joke. Despite his dire warning that those of us who didn’t take his classes would be doomed to making food for other people (a completely respectable career path that seemed to work out just fine for the likes of Anthony Bourdain because you know what makes you a better writer? life experience), I stuck with literature.
The joke about English majors lacking the skills to do anything but handle a fryolator is an old one, like Garrison Keillor-old. During the fours years I spent as an undergrad and the three and a half I spent in grad school (while working full-time despite my lack of business writing certificate, mind you), I got asked a lot what I intended to do with a skill set that tends toward the abstract. It’s not unique to English majors. Pretty much anyone with a liberal arts or humanities degree probably has had to field the same question: “what are you going to do with that?” (I’m going to be a well-rounded person, Aunt Mildred!*)
There is an assumption that certain degrees will get you the “good” job, whatever that is. For certain fields — medicine, engineering, law, etc. — that’s absolutely true. I don’t want someone with a B.A. in political science to give me my annual physical. It’s also true there are technical certifications you could get outside the confines of a traditional four-year institution — mechanics, plumbing, certain computer-related whatnots, etc. — that lead to stable, potentially high-paying careers. But it’s still a mistake to assume that an education at any level only exists to create a workforce, that it’s only a means to an end. It’s the end itself.
That’s why the Trump administration’s recent announcement of a proposed merger between the Departments of Education and Labor, while totally unsurprising, is particularly problematic (though, by no means the worst thing they’ve done recently.) If the administration’s goal is to make government run more efficiently, I don’t see how this accomplishes that. Neither does Virginia Congressman, Bobby Scott, who the linked article quotes as saying, “the Department of Labor is no more equipped to oversee elementary education policy than the Department of Education is prepared to enforce standards for coal mine safety. The logic behind this proposal is painfully thin.” I don’t think this administration really cares about efficiency when all evidence points to the contrary. If, however, the aim of this proposal is to further cut the Department of Education’s overall budget, remove or defund programs that protect the rights of already marginalized student populations, and undermine the legacy of Title IX, it starts to make a lot more sense.
More than that, there is an ideology undergirding this plan that can’t be measured in the same way the value of a liberal arts education can’t be quantified. It is harder to be a bigot the more broadly you read. The more people you meet (in person or through seeking out their stories), the more cultures you encounter, the more philosophies and worldviews you have to take into consideration, the more difficult it becomes to dismiss the shared humanity of people who don’t look, worship, speak, or eat like you do. The president and this administration are deeply afraid of living in a country that actually lives up the ideals enshrined in its founding documents. They want to live in the imaginary country of their childhood —mostly white, mostly male, and superficially Christian. Education — a real liberal education — rejects all of that as the default. It scares the shit** out of them.
*I don’t have an Aunt Mildred. To my knowledge, no member of my extended family questioned my academic pursuits. If they did, they didn’t ask me. If they asked my mother, she decided—wisely—to never mention it.
**My mom has previously asked me not to “swear so much” on here (or in life) because she’d like to be able to share some of the things I write with people but can’t because of my trash mouth. Mom, last week the president made a rape joke about a sitting U.S. senator. I’ll be civil when he is.