What do you do with a BA in English?

So sang Princeton in the musical Avenue Q, in a ditty that spoke volumes to me and possibly every other graduate of a degree that falls under the broad umbrella of ‘arts’.

 For myself, the intention is journalism, but as demonstrated by a correspondence in The Times this week, not everyone who leaves with a good BA, or even a PHD, will find themselves in the career they might expect their degree to merit.

 Following Giles Coren’s typically rabble-rousing rant last Saturday about the rise of the ‘illiterate till popsy’, an indignant Emma Wilson, from Cornwall,  wrote in with this response:

“I have a BA from Oxford in English language and literature (I also won the college prize for English, a scholarship and a British Academy grant), an MA (with distinction) in Victorian Literature from the University of Liverpool (for which I won a second British Academy grant) and a PhD in English Literature from the University of Birmingham. I am currently working on the checkout at a supermarket.”

Clearly, no popsy.  But it raises the wider issue; why go to university (three times, in Emma’s case) to end up scanning a barcode all day in Sainsbury’s?  Or, because I expect there is a valid reason, recession or otherwise, why Emma is working in a supermarket at the present, why study something artsy-fartsy when you’re never going to use it in real life?

As a recent graduate, I have a good number of friends working in distinctly non-artsy jobs, from consultancy to banking, accountancy to law.  Some did courses like economics, maths or business, but plenty did history, geography, politics (as I did) or the inevitable English.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but I fail to see how a knowledge of the inner workings of Hamlet, or an ability to understand Chaucer, will really help you in a job that centres around number-crunching.  The six hours of lecture time a week certainly won’t prepare you for the round the clock life of an investment banker.

For some professions, journalism amongst them, arts-related skills may come in useful; writing and commenting, or an understanding of society, politics and history.  The thing is though, they are not imperative – as has been reiterated to me several times in recent weeks, IT skills are even more indispensable in this oh-so-digital age.

That isn’t to say these aren’t worthwhile; pretentiously discussing Shakespeare can be great fun, for one.  But isn’t it time there was some realism injected into the debate?  Society has already deemed some courses ‘Mickey Mouse’ (I won’t elaborate for fear of offence), so shouldn’t we just accept it:

An arts degree doesn’t qualify you for s***.

In my opinion, arts graduates who are getting jobs in this economic climate, are getting them in spite of their degree course, and not because of it.

No one is going to employ me because I have a detailed knowledge of Machiavelli’s Discourses.  As a reply to Emma’s letter noted today, despite her stellar BA, MA and PHD, she “should count herself lucky”.

Writes Andrew Farmer: “Most people with her education would be deemed over-qualified for work on a supermarket checkout.”

Too qualified or under-qualified, what can one do with a BA in an arts degree?  Become an unusually literate till popsy?

I’d like to see the universities put that in their prospectuses!

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