The Universe keeps telling me if I want to make any money with my two English degrees, I need to start writing for Hollywood. That's what Joan Didion did. So did Faulkner, who couldn't pay his bills writing novels and so turned to scripts. There's certainly no money in teaching, not that I ever considered it my calling. And I'm not talking rich but living wage, as in enough to pay for food and housing and dental bills—all the little luxuries.
The theme has been cropping up for weeks now, increasingly, incessantly, everywhere I turn. In the NYT, I ran across a Natalie Angiers piece (love her) in which she talks about the biological rewards of female friendship as exemplified in the new HBO show, Girls, and starts by listing the "strikes" against the main character, the cherry-on-top being "she majored in English."
At work last week we were joking in the faculty room about how English majors are "a dime a dozen," when my sympathetic-but-hands-tied boss said, "Nah, you're worth a nickel."
Adding to the list of insults, this week the NYT reported that Harvard and other top universities are now competing with M.I.T.'s free online courses. Unfortunately, humanities course work is more difficult to assess quantitatively than, say, engineering, via multiple-choice or true-false questions (e.g., T/F: William Shakespeare authored celebrated plays, versus Review and analyze arguments concerning whether the Shakespeare plays were in fact written by an actor and producer commoner named William Shakespeare or a highly educated Lord/Sir Somebody who satirized his peers anonymously). So these top-level schools are contemplating grading the free online classes via "crowd-sourcing," "natural-language software," or "peer review." In other words, Teachers, here are your pink slips. Your services are no longer required, thank you very much, and don't expect engraved pens. Teachers are the new polar bears, not quite extinct but adrift on thin ice. Let computers do it. Let classmates do it. Surely fellow students know where the logical fallacies, comma splices, and plagiarism are, judging from their own fallacious, spliced, uncited work. That makes
So I secretly applauded this week when one of my coworkers, my new hero, declined classes this coming term after—businessman that he is—he did the math and calculated that with his hour commute to our school, teaching a couple courses a night wasn't worth his time, and he could in fact make as much or more working part-time at a friend's local cigar store. In other words, here's an MBA who has always wanted to teach (and who is well liked by students), who can make more money per hour as a shopkeeper (and we all know there's no big money in retail sales unless you own the place). Something's horribly wrong here. Is anybody listening?
Even lawyers are in trouble. I know lawyers teaching high-school graduates to become paralegals who are themselves competing with their tech-college students for jobs as paralegals because paralegal work pays more than paralegal teaching, even though paralegal wages won't dent their hundreds of thousands of dollars in student loans. (As a side note, one true story heard this week is that a mechanic-turned-lawyer decided to continue as a mechanic rather than practicing law because he makes more money fixing cars.)
I dream of a day when all the teachers in the U.S. strike at once. Let anarchy reign. Let accountants and politicians and hedge-fund managers run underperforming K-12 classrooms for a while. Then let's see what happens to teacher salaries. But this is just a fantasy. There's too much money to be made privatizing education—not that teachers make much money individually (watch American Teacher if you think otherwise), but there are a lot of teachers around, with all those kids and teens needing caretakin' and educatin'.
Society keeps reminding me how much teachers, particularly English teachers, are unloved, unwanted, undervalued, a dime a dozen. Need I jump off a bridge? Need I self-immolate, doused in kerosene and lit like a candle? Universe, you win. The message has been received. I prostrate myself before the capitalist market. I'm outta here. Unfortunately, my useless education has taught me history, critical thinking, textual analysis, and subversion. Do keep that in mind.