Doing a Degree in How the World Works

It’s that time of the year when the students are facing their exam periods. I used to see quite a few meltdowns each year from anxious kids inhabiting a grade borderline. The pressure seems so vast for some of them.

So much seems to ride on their results. Will they outcompete their peers sufficiently to nab a good job? Where even are there any jobs anymore? AI seems to be devouring entire sectors of human labour voraciously. Copyrighting, graphic design, news reporting, even creative writing. Even the student’s own essays. All their future labour is already being replaced before they even got there.

Most of the answers out there tend to say STEM. Go into science or tech. That’s where the last stand of human labour takes place. That’s where there’s still a wage, still some future perhaps.

As a result, the humanities are allegedly dying. Literature and History now look as threatened as Modern Languages did a half-generation ago. Market forces are eroding Literature enrollments so much that entire departments are closing en masse. It doesn’t currently look like Literature is going to have a happy ending.

I had a ringside seat in academia for some of the death throes of Modern Languages as a discipline. As the world, particularly the online bit of it, converges on Globish as its chosen lingua franca, there will always be a need for TEFL and TESOL, though increasingly even pedagogy will be achieved in part online and learning from machines.

But to an entire generation in Britain and Ireland, it suddenly seemed kinda pointless to study French, or German, or Spanish, or Italian, never mind Russian, or Chinese, or Arabic. Entire departments dissolved overnight. The discipline is a fraction of its former size now in just a few years and the condition may be close to terminal.

And now it seems like English Lit is dying too, or at least, so the media is scaremongering. For full disclosure, I’m happy to admit I have an English Lit degree. In fact, I’ve got two (a BA (Hons) and a PhD, both from Trinity College Dublin; I never bothered doing a Master’s.)

When I was doing my second, in what we might politely refer to as early middle age, I was frogmarched to a fascinating talk given to doctoral students by former doctoral graduates of English. We were told that only one in ten of us would end up permanently employed in academia, such was the pressure of the number of graduates versus the number of already threatened positions worldwide. Such jobs as did seem to be available were already primarily in China.

We got given inspirational little mini-lectures from people working in publishing, in parliament, in accountancy and law, and entrepreneurs of all kinds. The message was clear: this is the future most of you should expect.

Then they told me something which has haunted me since, primarily because they excluded me from it on the grounds of my more advanced age. They said: the demands of the world are now constantly changing. Most of you will have about ten jobs in your career, where previous generations might have had merely one or two, the ‘job for life’ of lore. And of those ten jobs, they added, six haven’t yet been invented.

Of course, it’s true, or at least it’s a truism of sorts. Tech is accelerating sufficiently as to require entire squadrons of people, from programmers to imagineers, that didn’t exist a generation ago, and will continue to do so. Hence the allegedly safe haven of STEM.

University Careers Advisor: Six out of ten of your future jobs haven’t been invented yet, yay!

Digital Careers Advice Avatar ten years from now: The AI overlords are hiring radiation sludge technicians for the prohibited zone. It’s that or we’re uploading you to the cloud to save the cost of feeding you. Which do you prefer?

I was lucky enough to be the one in ten who got a career in academia, though I’m currently out of it. But it did get me thinking about the need to embed some form of adaptability and resilience into student curricula at all levels, from primary school to post-doc. (I’ve spoken about this extensively before.) Because those are the only attributes that will truly allow young people to future-proof themselves for the demands of their adult lives.

And this is where I think studying the literature of the past can come in useful. English Literature is a degree which teaches critical thinking, use of language, aesthetic appreciation and a range of other comprehensive techniques. But it also frames the world as stories. As Yuval Noah Harari has pointed out, the human superpower, the ability which shot us past predator species and all other creatures to dominate this planet, was and remains our collective abilities to tell and share stories. And English Lit graduates learn how those stories work, which is another way of saying how the world works.

So I have two English Lit degrees. I can’t exactly say that they always directly impacted on all the jobs I’ve had. I have been among other things a roulette croupier, a barman in a lesbian pub, the Olympics correspondent for the Morning Star newspaper, a wine bar sommelier, a roofer, a film critic, maître d’ of a Creole restaurant, a playwright, and a member of the Guinness quality control taste panel at St James’s Gate brewery.

Most of those experiences didn’t make it to my formal LinkedIn CV. Pretty much all the things that did make it – primarily my careers in journalism and academia – are very clearly connected to my initial course of study.

But whether I was serving ales to Dublin’s lesbian community, reporting on an international soccer match, describing that night’s special in the restaurant, or assessing an exotic variant of Guinness, I think my undergrad study of literature and language always served me well.

The literature I studied taught me lessons of adaptability and resilience. I can’t think of another degree that might have prepared me better for life. This world is made of stories and I was privileged to spend some years learning how those stories work.

Nobel Pursuits

Already it’s October, when the leaves turn red and fall from the trees, the nights grow longer and the days colder, and the Nobel prizes are awarded.

The Nobel committee for lit does tend to go leftfield when possible. One is therefore required to read into their decisions, a little like ancient haruspices reading the entrails of chickens or 20th century Kremlinologists interpreting the gnomic actions of the politburo.

How then should we read the decision to anoint the sparse, harsh and uncompromising pseudo-autobiographical work of Annie Ernaux?

To me it seems like a commentary upon Michel Houellebecq and Karl Ove Knausgård. All three are known for writing their big books of me, but perhaps the men are better known than Mme Ernaux internationally. Equally, both Houellebecq and Knausgård have been heavily criticised, among other things, for their misogyny. Awarding Ernaux seems to me to be a reaction to their popularity and the fact that both have been tipped for this prize previously. Your mileage may vary.

(Full disclosure: I’ve never read Knausgård or Ernaux and have at best a passing familiarity with Houellebecq, who I found to be a very rude interviewee at the Dublin Impac Award in a previous millennium.)

Also elevated to laureate this year was Svante Pääbo, the man who proved that ancient hominid species such as Neanderthals did not entirely die out but in fact persist to this day within non-African human genomes. In fact, I likely owe some Neanderthal ancestor the gene which oversees my melanocortin-1 receptor proteins, which gave me my once russet beard.

What’s intriguing personally for me about this year’s Nobels for medicine and literature isn’t that I’d not previously heard of the literature recipient, nor that I had previously heard of the medicine recipient, but the fact that both these things occurred in the same year. I guess my interests have shifted over the decades away from solely literary pursuits, and towards scientific interests, especially in early hominids. This year’s prizes have brought that home to me, and congratulations to the winners.

I’ve long criticised the Nobel Prize for Peace, because the Norwegian parliament committee which awards it has a knack for often choosing inappropriate recipients. Hello Henry Kissinger, Aung San Suu Kyi, Barack Obama, UN “peace-keeping” forces, etc.

Nevertheless, I’d argue they got it right this year. The 2022 Nobel Peace Prize has been awarded to human rights advocate Ales Bialiatski from Belarus, the Russian human rights organisation Memorial and the Ukrainian human rights organisation Center for Civil Liberties. Congratulations to them too.

POST-SCRIPT: The newest Nobel physics laureates have also been announced and their award is for proving that reality, as we understand it currently, is not real in the ways we think it is. Not awarded, though clearly the forefather of all of this research (which aimed to prove his hypotheses) is my compatriot John Stewart Bell, who alas died in 1990 while the experiments proving him correct were still in process.

John Stewart Bell

Congratulations to Alain Aspect, John F. Clauser and Anton Zeilinger for proving once again that the universe is not only stranger than we think, but most likely as Heisenberg noted, stranger than we can think.