The “Overeducated” Typist

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.

6 thoughts on “The “Overeducated” Typist”

  1. My family is one generation out of the lower working class on my father’s side and abject poverty on my mother’s. My parents were sticklers for working hard, as they saw hard work as the only sure path through an unpredictable world. When you have nothing, you can always make due through the sheer sweat of your brow. That’s how you survive. We were made to work for everything we got and never, ever expect anything at all from the world or society. “The world owes you nothing,” my mother would say, “You want something? Work for it.”

    My father by contrast, though also a great believer in hard work, also was a great believer in education. He drove many a used car in rather rough shape but sent all of his children (two boys, two girls) through catholic school. He worked during the day, went to school at night three times a week and took care of a family. He carried a heavy load for many years and though it all has done very well for himself and all of my parent’s children have done well to their credit.

    I remember mmy father taking me on a tour of a local General Motors plant when I was 12 or so. It was an eye opening experience. On the ride home, I got quite a lecture on the importance of education and choosing a path in life that will bring happiness and satisfaction as well as paying the bills. “Do you want to stand in a pit all day putting on nuts with a air wrench? Imagine standing there 40 hours a week, 50 weeks a year for years on end.” Made quite an impression on me. It was a good lesson.

  2. Since I started the discussion of the term “over-educated,” I suppose I should throw in another two-cents’ worth here, although I can only speak from personal experience, which may be not have much bearing on the experience of others. I was part of the Baby Boomers who started college in the late Sixties, when it was an entirely different world. Colleges had not become corporate trade-schools. You went to college, not just to set a student deferment from the draft (if you were a guy), but because you wanted an education in the traditional sense. And a liberal-arts degree was still an acceptable admission-ticket to the business world. Not that we were particularly interested in entering the business world: at least most of the people I knew–even people like myself, who had no counter-cultural animosity against business–aspired to some kind of career in the arts. By the time we graduated things had changed pretty drastically, and until such time as we published our novels or recorded our first album, we were forced to go into the mainstream business world, usually into low-level jobs.
    I’m in agreement with you about not “high-hatting” it on the job, but maintaining at least the facade of a good attitude and doing the job you’re paid for as conscientiously as possible. There are just some jobs, however, that if you don’t feel you’re better than, you’re suffering from a serious lack of self-esteem. In any event, although we all aspired to greater things in the arts, the liberal-arts grads who formed the nucleus of the publishing customer-service department I worked for were generally competent and diligent workers. I think the management of the department liked to have us around because he aspired to a certain level of cultural sophistication and maybe associating with us gave him a certain cultural cachet. And one thing we could do very well is think clearly–maybe not about political things (except me, the liberarian, of course)–but about the job at hand. In fact, as the Yuppie Era came in–and I saw the beginnings of it in the late Seventies, long before the term “yuppie” was coined–it made our collective gorge rise to watch ourselves being shunted aside by these business-school grads who, given the chance, screwed things up because they had never learned to think. As we got into the Eighties a lot of us found it pretty galling to have to report to these boneheads. It may be that was when the saying, “The ‘C’ students run the world,” came into being.
    To this day I am handicapped in job-seeking because it is very hard for me to feign interest when they ask “Why do you want this job?” and I can’t answer, “For the money and benefits, so I can have financial peace of mind while I write my
    novel.” I couldn’t play-act very well in my twenties when required to say, “Gee-whillikers, Mr. Dithers, there’s nothing I would like better than to work for Universal Widget!” I’m even less convincing a job-interview play-actor today. And in fact I am cognizant of the ethical factor as well: I shouldn’t be deceiving Mr. Dithers, who has every right to want someone who would consider a job at American Widget the Holy Grail. But if, by some miracle, Mr. Dithers would think it somewhat cool to have a liberal-arts type in his employ, and actually hires me, I would certainly, as an old cowboy might say, “ride for the brand.”

  3. Let me second the above comment.

    I, too, received a liberal arts education in the 70s. At that time, unless you were headed for engineering or medicine, that was the likely path.

    And employers were quite content to hire liberal arts majors because, after all, we’d “made the effort.” There was still the expectation that a liberal arts degree was an achievement to be respected.

    It’s only been in the last couple years that I’ve recognized that my original B.A. and a few decades of experience no longer hold much sway with hiring managers.

    A liberal arts degree now seems to be perceived as the equivalent of a high school diploma in 1971 — and perhaps it is. It’s the fault of the educators, though.

  4. Well, one thing that I would say is the fault of the educators is that they’ve lost faith in what they teach. Or they’ve become self-indulgent. (Well, both.) There are few core requirements – and the better the school, the fewer.

    Both of my older daughters graduated with high distinction from a decent mega-university; their majors were in the liberal arts. They took neither English nor history classes. That is probably more common than not. Employers used to think that a B.A. in liberal arts meant that at least a student had the rudimentary knowledge from a couple of comp courses & a couple of chronological surveys; they thought they’d studied enough history to have a basic understanding. I doubt they can count on that today. Of course, I don’t know what they hell they think they learned in marketing & management courses.

  5. If you’re willing to be paid to do something, it’s not beneath you. If you think it’s beneath you, find a different job.

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