Advice to a liberal-arts major

Lisa G. from Pittsburgh writes to Marilyn vos Savant (Parade, Dec. 7, 2003):

Many of my friends and I are intelligent, liberal-arts graduate who, due to an economic system that glorifies science, medicine, business, and law, are toiling as secretaries and retail clerks. Is there any hope for the philosopher, writer, dancer, poet or sculptor to find paying work in Western society? Or are we doomed to relegate our talents to hobbies while working in drudgery until we die, just to pay the bills?

Marilyn gives a namby-pamby work hard, follow your dreams sort of answer. Here is what she should have said.

First, stop whining. You had a choice of poetry or business and you chose poetry. If your love for the subject is not enough to make up for the loss in income then go back to school. Two, stop blaming “an economic system” that glorifies science etc. and notice that these jobs pay highly because the skills they require are rare and people are willing to pay for the product of these jobs. If you produce something that people want you will be paid highly also but don’t expect other people to pay so that you can fulfill your dreams of writing poetry that no one wants to read. Third, what do you mean by it’s difficult to find work for the philosopher, writer, dancer, poet or sculptor in “Western society.” Do you know of any society at any time or place that has offered more for the arts? A retail clerk who does sculpture on the side has a far higher income than does your typical sculptor working in India. Try visiting most of the rest of the world – where science and business are not glorified – if you want to truly understand “drudgery.”

I see from the above that I have been harsh so here also is some positive advice. Stop focusing on money and instead look around for opportunities to practice your art. Enter poetry slams, make a movie, high-end camcorders are now capable of making decent quality films (yes, you will have to save to buy one), use the internet to promote your works. Do not denigrate your art as a “hobby” even if you don’t do it full-time for pay. Look for work that draws upon your artistic skills. A writer can be an editor, a poet can write great ad-copy, a photographer can photograph weddings (do not sneer it’s a privilege to be trusted with recording one of the most important events of a person’s life.) And don’t look down upon the world of work. The great poet Wallace Stevens was an insurance executive who wrote “It gives a man character as a poet to have this daily contact with a job.”