Jordan Weissmann of The Atlantic asks why people are in humanities graduate programs in spite of very bad job numbers.
First, I suppose I should say that my program is in a small subfield within the larger world of English, which has much better numbers generally than English writ large, and that my particular program has effectively a 100% tenure track hiring rate since it started giving out PhDs 30 years or so ago. I am funded, and I’m smart and frugal, and in fact I have less student loan debt now than I did when I started. But those are details, and I am under no illusions. I know the percentages. Why am I here?
Because I live an incredibly fulfilling life. I teach, which I love more than I can ever say. I interact with brilliant, passionate young people who are living in a period of their lives where they are allowed and expected to chase their passions. I talk and argue with people about books, about ideas, about politics, about anything. I spend long hours chasing rabbits in my own mind, or in the library. I take statistics classes because I want to and classes on Scottish Common Sense Realists because I have to. I go to lectures and conferences. I go see concerts and recitals. I write and I write and I write and I still wish I could write more. I have a little office space, with a coffee maker, where I can chat with my friends and my colleagues. I eat out often and drink more than I should. I have no money, but I have enough money. I sleep in. I never, ever, ever question the value of what I do. I am happier than I have ever been.
None of which, of course, means that everyone should do what I do, or would want what I want, or could or should understand why I am doing what I am doing. But then, I am not asking others to value what I value. I am asking only to be allowed to value what I do. That, often, is just too much to ask.
When I point out that the graduate students I know are almost all funded, and that they are able to live cash-poor but pleasure-rich lives, I often hear talk of opportunity costs. If they had only been STEM majors, and glommed onto some useless app company before the IPO– you know, succeeded in the terms that The Atlantic recognizes– well, they would be making a lot more money, which is the measure of all things. This assumes that getting a job is as simple as wanting a job. Opportunity cost implies opportunity. There is none, out there. I cannot stress this enough: many people I know who are grad students, in various fields and programs, didn’t leave cushy jobs to come and get paid to go to school. They left a brutal and uncaring job market that had ground their self-confidence in dust and insisted that their failures were all their own. So they come to grad school to make a pittance for a little while, and to escape. Someone very close to me is thinking about a funded grad program, because he would be making very nearly what he makes in a soul-crushing, 50-hour a week job, and in doing so live a far happier life. How could that not be rational?
All of this assumes, of course, that Weissmann is actually interested in an honest answer to his question. The Atlantic is, on balance, a consistently anti-academic publication. But I know Weismann’s work to be thoughtful and fair, if not kind. The comments, of course, are filled with the kind of brutally anti-academic attitudes that I have encountered for my entire life. Weissman must have known that would happen, even if he didn’t intend it. I know red meat when I read it, and The Atlantic has certain institutional mandates, after all.
Living the life that I currently live, enjoying the things that I enjoy, the question “why are you doing this?” is as strange to me my choice is to Weissmann. The last few years have been the best of my adult life, and if this is borrowed time, I will remember it fondly. If I don’t end up getting an academic job, I will adjust, and I will move on. I have made every choice with my eyes open, and I am as prepared for failure as I am for success. I have lived through far, far worse, after all. If I am insulted by anything, when I read one of the dozens of articles which takes as a given the ridiculousness of graduate students, it’s by the underestimation of my resiliency. I am not doing this only for a job, but even if I were, I could fail and move on, and celebrate the time I’ve spent.
What is at play, in this discussion, is not merely the personal foibles or economic futures of a few scattered thousand dreamers and academics. They are my people; I have never felt comfort or ease around any other kind. That so many people can find so little in them to admire or even extend a grudging respect to neither surprises nor saddens me. No, the real point of this discussion is the idea of real pluralism, of real difference. Because the reality is that some of us value different things and want different things than most people want. And while we now have a whole suite of technologies that have the potential to reveal the breadth of human desires, they are used, more often than not, to enforce conformity in values and in ambitions. I would put this question to Weismann and to others: I could live the expected life of socially-approved unhappiness, squeezing into some beige cubicle to file reports for someone I’ll never meet for a purpose I’ll never understand, counting down the days until I can take a week-long vacation during which I think of nothing but work. Every day I would die. Nobody would call that irrational. Nobody would talk much about it at all. Nobody would write an article for The Atlantic asking why.
Instead, I am living my lovely little life, poor but not in poverty, and eventually it will end, and then there’ll be what comes next. Whatever happens, I’m enjoying myself for now. And I am saying, as I do so, that I have not asked for the approval of most people in making this choice. I knew, in fact, that I would spend the next half decade of my life being mocked for making the choice. And I chose it anyway. That’s the point, more than anything: the right to make one’s own choices, the right to make a choice that no one else understand.
That’s why, Jordan.