Wednesday, March 12, 2014

The Value of a Medieval Studies Degree

Parent: I'm really proud of my daughter's success in medieval studies. It's amazing how she has learned these languages and knows so much about literature I didn't even know existed. And being a co-author on an academic paper... no one in our family has ever done that.

But I'm worried about her majoring in something so specialized. She doesn't want to teach, and the economy is still terrible, and we're not a rich family. She has to get a job when she graduates. Wouldn't it be better to major in Psychology or Business, something practical? What is a degree in medieval studies going to do for her?

Professor: Show potential employers that she is really, really smart.


Professor: I'm completely serious. Success in medieval studies is incontrovertible evidence of intelligence, self-discipline and the ability to solve complex problems.* Employers aren't allowed to give IQ tests (which don't really work that well, anyway), but they want to hire really smart people. Medieval studies is a big, bright flag that says "Smart Person Here."

Joking aside, it's probably a safe bet that any undergraduate who can do original research in a centuries-old academic discipline dominated by prickly Oxbridgians, grumpy Germans and in-bred Ivy-types is going to be able to handle something like banking or administration.


Parent: That's a really good point.


Parent: [sounding frustrated] Why don't liberal arts colleges ever just say that? Why all this vague "critical thinking" stuff that is obviously b.s.?

Professor: Colleges are run by administrators, not medievalists. Administrators like vague phrases like "critical thinking," because the same group of words can mean different things to different constituencies. So "critical thinking" can mean "criticizing aspects of current social organization" to the people who care about that stuff and "being able to think in a disciplined manner" to people who care about that stuff. But the very vagueness that makes the cliche appealing to administrators robs it of rhetorical power.

However, some of us non-administrators are trying to get the word out: How to Think: The Liberal Arts and Their Enduring Value

* Two of my student research partners, both of whom concentrated in medieval studies and wrote honors theses on Anglo-Saxon topics, recently graduated from a top-25 law school. They didn't study pre-law or political science but were nevertheless perfectly prepared for the academic challenges. Why? Well, honestly, mostly probably because they're both ridiculously smart and self-disciplined, for which their parents get the credit, not me. But also because medieval studies prepared them to handle complicated, ill-defined problems--just like the kinds of things they had to deal with in law school. The difference? The law-school problems are all in Modern English, so they're a bit easier. Also, their undergraduate focus in medieval studies demonstrated to law schools that they were extremely smart, which helped get accepted into an elite school in which they could then prove themselves.


John Cowan said...

Well, mostly in Modern English. As the court said in establishing that a slaughterhouse was not a public nuisance at common law: "Le utility del chose excusera le noisomeness del stink."

Unknown said...

Thank you for this.

I wish I had followed my interests when I was young and pursued interests like these, instead of listening to everyone who said to do something practical with my life.

And yes, there's such a thing as it being "too late" at this point. Especially when you're in your 40s, unemployed, utterly broke and stuck living in your parents' basement.

Anonymous said...

Additionally, literature majors have been studying the expressions of human beings, which usually leads to them being able to deal with human beings more capably. At least that was what a Human Resources spokesperson said at a lunch-seminar once back when I was an undergraduate. It's what HR people look for when looking for managers.

Brandon Young said...

Great, dialogue Professor Drout. I'm beginning to think Platonic dialogue perhaps the best way to show rather than explain things. Anyway, I agree with the value of the medieval education, no argument from me there. However, I found it interesting how you connected the problems one would face in the legal world (my field). However, I do know a few other careers: screen-writing for NBC for example (Parks and Recreation), and becoming a lecturer in the Simmons psychology department while being perhaps one of the most amazing Behavioral Consultants for Autistic kids in the world-and can recite the first 500 lines of The Aeneid in Latin-I know! All would do extremely well in any field. Of course, there are the occasional "Daddy's little girl" who are just bored. But that's a small contingent. There's a reason why they say "Behind every good man, there is even a better woman." I'm thinking of Flannery O'Conner's relationship with Aquinas for example.

Lisa Spangenberg said...

You know the number of people with undergraduate and graduate degrees in Medieval studies, Medieval lit, or Classics who work in IT is absolutely staggering.

I'm serious. IT, whether it's corporate IT policy, network engineering and design, software development, or technical documentation, there's probably a Medievalist and or a Classicist within one degree of separation from almost any position.