A major overgeneralization

"What do you do with a BA in English?" the puppet Princeton sings in "Avenue Q." The answer: Apparently, you knock the socks off of people like Steve Strauss. Photo from mlive.com.

“What do you do with a BA in English?” the puppet Princeton sings in “Avenue Q.” The answer: Apparently, you knock the socks off of people like Steve Strauss. Photo from mlive.com.

I just read Steve Strauss’s “Why I Hire English Majors.” What a great perspective: He’s a businessman who appreciates the critical thinking and communication skills that his humanities minions bring to the table. You gotta love that. As far as I’m concerned, there’s a bit too much church-state separation between the business and creative types of the world. Anyone who can see the value of what goes on on the other side of the aisle gets a gold star from me.

That said, here are my concerns.

Strauss paints a rosy picture of bright-eyed college grads ready to take the world by storm. Young workers, however, don’t hatch with instant expertise and experience. Here’s the reality:

  • It takes time and energy to acquaint young workers with an industry and with the intricacies of a specific workplace
  • Most workplaces rarely devote adequate energy to doing this
  • Even if they won’t admit it openly, most employers love young workers because they’re cheap

These are all workplace-related matters. In addition to these obstacles, Strauss makes some generalizations about English majors’ brilliance that I don’t agree with.

  • They don’t all write well (yes, that’s how I feel)
  • They don’t all have amazing original ideas
  • Bold, confident and willing to speak up are more about personality than anything

Strauss applauds smart young people for their courage in choosing to study English, a field typically associated with liberal-arts dreamers and absent-minded professors. But sometimes, a major is just a major, and the interests of a 19- or 20-year-old aren’t necessarily a harbinger of professional glory.

I’ve worked with writers and editors from a variety of backgrounds. The value placed an individual’s contributions has a lot to do with the elusive “it” factor — that mysterious combination of skill, charisma and curiosity that rarely finds a perfect balance in most of us mere mortals. Some workplaces value “fit” in a job candidate over all else in the hopes that “it” will flourish in the right environment. I argue that we need people from a variety of backgrounds with a variety of strengths. In collaborative environments, that diversity can add up to “it.” We can’t rely on one person to bring “it.”

I’ve seen “it” a lot, but I’ve also misfired based on erroneous assumptions about what a person’s resume says about their ability. That’s the danger in assuming someone with a punch-list background has what you need. So let’s stop letting the major do the talking and use practical aptitude as a better guide. Another benefit of doing this? We’re giving psych, zoology, music, anthropology and history majors a fighting chance to shine.


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