My mother is a doctor. On a few occasions in my life — in restaurants, on planes or on the side of the street — we have come across someone who has fallen, fainted or had some kind of accident. Concerned and curious people swarm around the injured person until someone asks the inevitable question — “Is there a doctor here?” Then a path clears as my mother steps forward and calmly assesses the situation, issuing instructions as I watch uselessly, in awe.
It’s at these moments that I picture myself after I’ve graduated from college and grad school and hung my B.A. and my Ph.D. up on the wall, out at a restaurant or on a plane or walking along the street, and hearing that cry — “Is there a doctor here?” “Yes!” I’ll proudly announce. “I am a doctor — of theater and English!”
While I could perhaps calm the victim down using some lighthearted improvisation games (“just pretend you’re not injured”) or by reciting some soothing poetry, my arts education has not equipped me with the ability to be of any practical use whatsoever in an emergency situation. My mother knows how to save lives, and I do not. This stark reality can sometimes make me feel like what I am learning in college is pretty irrelevant. “How will you ever help people and save the world with a degree in theater and English?” my inner voice inquires. Please shut up, inner voice.
Then I remember that I may not be a lifesaver, but I am an excellent slow-motion runner. I have actually taken a slow-motion running class. We had a slow-motion race at the end — the person who finished last was deemed the winner. Over the course of my studies, I’ve also read lots of poetry and novels and watched some movies and stuff. I have become quite proficient in yoga, written countless essays about dead writers and spent an unreasonably large amount of time lying on the floor with my shoes off, just breathing.
As I lie there, sometimes I wonder what I would be doing at that very moment if I had chosen to study medicine or law or business or engineering.
“Don’t you ever fear that you are destined for a life of poverty?” There goes the inner voice again. Whenever I converse with responsible, employed, tax-paying adults, they ask me, in a roundabout way, that very question: “You’re studying English?” I smile in the awkward pause and brace myself for what inevitably comes next. “Are there many jobs in … English?” “You’re majoring in theater? Oh, how … fun for you!” or my absolute favorite — “Well, you must want to be a teacher.”
I don’t want to be a teacher, actually. There is absolutely nothing wrong with wanting to be a teacher, but I resent the assumption that studying the arts commits you to a life of teaching the arts to students who will then be qualified to do nothing but teach the arts and perpetuate a never-ending cycle. The ironic thing is that an arts and humanities undergraduate degree by itself actually does not even fully qualify you to be a teacher.
In fact, an arts and humanities degree fully qualifies you for absolutely nothing. It makes you an educated and well-read person, perfectly suited for a highly paid job at the Institute of Educated and Well-Read People. The only problem is, I hear it’s pretty difficult to get jobs there because they receive so many qualified applicants.
However, you can also go on to do absolutely anything you want with an arts degree, if you set your mind to it. Instead of a clearly marked path unfolding in front of you, many doors are swinging wide open when you graduate. You could join the circus, or become a lumberjack. You could even go into academia and eventually become a teacher — I bet you never knew that was an option. You need to possess a potentially deluded optimistic mindset, along with a healthy dose of crazy, to study the arts. If you are a doctor or lawyer or dentist or engineer, you are virtually guaranteed to make a relatively profitable living.
But if you are an arts graduate, you will more than likely have to fight tooth and nail to secure an unpaid internship working in the field you have been training in for four years.
All arts and humanities students know that, in the long run, they have chosen the harder path to a stable career. But they don’t care, because most arts and humanities students could not imagine studying anything else.
I sometimes worry that while other people learn to make lifesaving drugs or life-changing decisions, I learn to run in slow motion. Are there any jobs in that? I don’t think so. But right now, I don’t care. I think I’d like to go to grad school anyway.