A person with a liberal arts degree is a fool to think it is a key to anything in the business world. Most of the people I knew saw those classes as an end in themselves, not a means to some kind of appointment. (If we wanted to do that, we could have gotten education degrees, which were a lot easier but which required listening to more bullshit.)
This morning when I first saw the discussion of “overeducation”, I thought, how stupid. I’ve always felt people who thought that way were unwilling to actually enter the fray, get their hands dirty. And I thought about how often I met people who became my friends on Kelly Girl jobs – a group of us standing around a table, collating bits of paper or jamming phone directories into bags for mailing or typing up a grant report in a boiler room of typists. Often, most of the group had at least one degree and some were working on their third ones. My daughter, ABD in a rather demanding field, has taken some jobs like that in the last couple of years. They have broadened her understanding, taken her into offices she might never have entered otherwise.
And I reminisced about how nice it was to run a service business that mostly didn’t need a college degree, certainly a Ph.D., but the years spent getting that degree had taught me we weren’t likely to make a profit those first couple of months, either. And it taught much else that helped that business stay afloat.
And I thought of the Harvard Ph.D. and the Yale M.A. and the girl A.B.D. in entomology, with her name on 40 articles, and the ag engineering Ph.D. back from his Peace Corps time in Africa & the guy with an M.A. in biology who went to work for People Magazine because he loved to write – all of them worked at my little business for not much more than minimum wage. They weren’t always better workers because of their education, but they were fun to talk to, their curiosity about our customers’ lives and work was more thoughtful because they’d spent those years working and reading. I valued their education in conversation if not with greater pay. They weren’t always “worth” more because they knew pre-Semitic languages, but it was nice they did.
Anyway, that was how I thought this morning. And some day I’ll talk more about the intersection of education & life at On the Double, the “professional’s copy shop.” But during the day, I realized that I needed to be more honest: education can be a handicap.
The first way is through pure snobbery (and sometimes pure defensiveness on the boss’s part). A good employee is not someone who feels the work is beneath them. Not surprisingly, several of my employees looked at life that way. These were seldom those with graduate degrees but more often ones with B.A.’s. These employees were a disaster – rude to customers, shirking work when left alone, arrogant, always feeling themselves overworked and underpaid. I personally don’t have a hell of a lot of patience with that attitude. I come from a small town in the Midwest and I’ve always believed work of any kind conferred dignity. If you take the job, you do it. (As Billy Budd says, he takes the King’s bread and he’s loyal to the king.) Of course, I suspect I’d be a lot less patient with those who don’t even take a job but sit around complaining that no jobs match their (often esoteric) skills.
But to be honest, there can be another problem. The theme throughout the first sections of The Autobiography of Frederick Douglass is of his powerful despair when he first learns to read, as he educates himself he becomes aware of his situation as a slave and aware of his potential as a man; he is miserable – even suicidal – until he can focus on escape. The words he hears slaveowners use – restless spirit, discontented – to describe the educated slave have a sad validity as he does, indeed, become conscious & therefore discontented. Moving from being an unconscious worker to a conscious one is likely to move us from being content to being restless, from accepting our lot in life to feeling entrapped.
Some combination of these is why employees with newly minted B.A. degrees were often more discontented than either the part-timers who were still in school or those working on or even having obtained a graduate degree. I think they feared this job – which was immensely difficult and yet neither paid well nor with much chance for advancement – was what they would be doing for the rest of their lives. The others were more relaxed because they saw it as transitional.
I always preferred employees with more education – if for no other reason than I could talk to them. But I don’t think people who look at a resume and find the applicant overqualified are crazy. They may be insecure, themselves. And they may have run into some of those belligerent, this job is not good enough for me types. And their training period may require enough time that they really don’t want to waste it on someone likely to leave with little notice when a more appropriate job comes along. But I also suspect it isn’t terribly healthy to assume that that rejection letter comes because you are “overqualified.” It is better to find out what being “qualified” is.