Regrets, I’ve had a few, but then again
You may have seen this:
Nearly 2 in 5 American college graduates have major regrets.
That is, they regret their major.
The regretters include a healthy population of liberal arts majors, who may be responding to pervasive social cues. When he delivered his 2011 State of the Union address in the shadow of the Great Recession, former president Barack Obama plugged math and science education and called on Americans to “out-innovate, out-educate, and out-build the rest of the world.” Since then, the number of new graduates in the arts and humanities has plunged.
Leave it to the prestige media to associate an ancient “you kids don’t learn nothin’ useful in that school” shtick with a forgotten Obama speech.
You can go ahead and look — the data is from a survey by the U.S. Federal Reserve, those noted ornithologists of the bluebird of happiness — but it’s basically what anyone who went to college or thought about it has been hearing their entire lives: History and literature and social studies and the arts are not moneymakers, so don’t bother.
Except now, according to the story, as the economy has tightened, not only does society value these disciplines even less, but so, apparently, do a lot of the people who once, briefly, in their youth, valued them more. Now these poor mayflies who thrilled to Chekhov, Plato, Wittgenstein, and Coleridge instead of Something Practical are willing to penitently tell pollsters, like Cool Hand Luke telling the Boss he’s got his mind right, that they have “regrets.”
Whether these survey respondents added “I wish I had studied marketing or some other species of drag” is left unrevealed. At least the Post allows them the kindness of that old saw about how the humanities make students well-rounded and verbal and thus better able to learn the really valuable skills, like “programing languages.”
But the message is plain, whether it’s expressed crudely by rightwing dingbats who claim student loan sufferers wasted public money on “lesbian dance theory” or daintily by reporters who’ve attained one of the few remaining big-money gigs in the also-regrettable field of journalism (students of which, the Post tells us, only make $3.4 million a lifetime, while “a typical economics, biological sciences or chemistry major can expect to make $4.6 million over that same time, adjusted for inflation”).
That is, in the old sandlot argot: We need an earner, not a useless learner.
The general idea — again, you’ve heard it a million times — is that you’re supposed to be practical and treat college as a trade school; if you’re more inclined to study something that is not a cinch to pay off big, you must suppress that instinct because money’s the only reason to go to school or, really, to do anything.
Within the money-making margins there is some flexibility: If you can’t stand the sight of blood but love logic puzzles, for example, you can pursue the law instead of medicine, notwithstanding it’s marginally less well-paying. And if your parents don’t think they can bully or beat you into the hard work necessary for either, you can do something further down the money tree — the MBA track is a hot one; God knows talent and taste are no prerequisite for success there.
But if you really want to learn how to paint or act or write or dance or just contemplate the Verities, unless your family is large and rich enough to approve of a cultural addition to the clan, you are destined for violent headwinds.
Unless, for you, a child of God on whom no man has claim, this stuff is absurdly beside the point.
Me, I was (by my lights) lucky: I was on scholarship, and my poor uneducated mother was so happy that I was going to college at all that she didn’t scruple over my choice of major — though sometimes during the four years she would ask, with some concern, if I wouldn’t consider minoring in business.
Ha! As if! I was gonna be a successful actor — and a successful student, too, because I had that much Poor Boy Goes to College syndrome in me that I sweated for the cum laude. I wouldn’t have dreamed of dropping out for a table-waiting job and four days a week of scene study at HB.
Which, seen a certain way, may have been a better path, because maybe such a life-upturning act of rebellion might have forced me into some bold result, as it did Rimbaud or William Merritt Chase. So maybe I should call the Post and tell them they’ve got another regret for the pile.
But on the other hand, the “bold result” might just as easily have been heroin addiction, prostitution, ignominious death. These things can go either way!
As it happened, when I did get to New York and waited tables, I quickly soured on acting and matriculated to the school of rock. However much I enjoyed it I didn’t get rich, so maybe I should have stuck with acting. But, then again, the promise of wealth or even steady earnings is for actors notoriously shaky. But then also again, if I had gotten the right agent and been put up for a soap… Or maybe I should have started writing sooner! I didn’t have anything to say, but what difference does that make? Darn, when are the LSATs, I still have a few good years left…
You see my point: Once you start spinning Path Not Taken scenarios — as the disappointed baccalaureates of this survey must have done, else why express regret — you just wind up substituting new, unfalsifiable fantasies for the one that brought you where you got to.
I am content. In no alternative Life of Edroso was I ever going to study anything sensible, because Anything Sensible has always bored the piss out of me. I’ve ridden in limos and run from the cops; been cursed by dummies, quoted by Barack Obama, kicked by the wind, robbed by the sleet, had my head stove in but I’m still on my feet, etc. It’s not been too bad of a life and if the money runs a little thin at the end, I won’t squawk because really, what makes impoverishment in old age worse than a grinding youth? Only narrative; it favors the ant over the grasshopper, but where we’re all headed all storylines dissolve, and by the time we get there nothing we acquired, even memories, will have survived the trip except maybe a clean conscience.
Anyway: I regret the people I’ve hurt to whom I can’t make amends. But what I studied in college? Because of money? Nah.
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