This morning I start my second semester toward getting an MA in English. I don't think I can overemphasize how well I know that this degree is not technically worth the paper it's printed on, much less the tuition that I will ultimately spend to attain it. Nor can I fully explain how thoroughly my first semester convinced me that I made the right choice by going in for the degree.
A recent online discussion in which I participated got around to arguing about "in-demand" graduate degrees, and "using" vs. "not using" a graduate degree for which good money is paid. I am grossed out by this kind of rhetoric when it comes to degrees of any kind. Education is a gift, and to talk about that gift in a way that only acknowledges its dollars-and-cents utility is repellent to me. What do I gain from pouring money into my brain? Only everything. How and when do I use it? Every day, in every way. Someone on the thread asked, point blank, why you would select a graduate degree that isn't "in demand," and I said, point blank, "Oh, gee, to learn? To improve one's life and mind?"
My choice to get an MA in English is, in a way, indefensible. I was raised by a very literate mother and I tend to read everything I can get my hands on; I've already read, just as a consequence of being me, fully half the books on one of my syllabi for this semester. Even if I wanted to, I can't teach with an MA, and (IN THEORY) if my career path is to be a novelist, the MFA is the "useful" degree, the terminal and teachworthy one, the equivalent of an MBA for a financial adviser. (Sort of.) A lot of people who would certainly know might say that there's little an MA can offer me that I can't get on my own, and that my time and money would be better spent on writers' conferences, library fines, even an MFA - but not on what I'm choosing.
If someone asked me straight out why on earth I'm bothering with an MA in English, I would acknowledge it was a fair question and then desire to explain at length. I want to understand literature better, which is a process I'm not sure is entirely achievable just through reading. I want to spend a few years learning (yay for learning!) in a structured way, because I learn better in structured environments than I do on my own. I want to meet new people, folks who love books and learning too. I want to take creative writing classes at the college level, dammit, something I've never yet managed to do. And, critically, my first semester stimulated me and made me cheerful in a way I couldn't have predicted and hardly understand, except that I want more of it.
It was a hard choice. There's some family baggage for me around graduate degrees and their tuition. I have a lot to say about it. (Obviously.) But in this space, the thing that I really want to say is that I don't think the decision to get a graduate degree should depend on its nuts-and-bolts utility. Certainly I think this is true in humanities fields, where utility is often irrelevant to the life of the mind
, but even in more practical disciplines, why not pursue a degree because you want to learn, because you want your life to be a little bigger than it was before? I believe it's folly to go after education with a concrete, utilitarian state of mind. How can you have any fun learning with such a rigid perspective?
I don't expect to "use" my degree in any more practical manner than every day, in every way. It won't get me a job or a promotion, and while I think it will make me a better writer, I might be able to get the same improvement with time and practice rather than tuition. I'm doing it anyway. Some people travel in planes, see the world with passports, but I walk into classrooms and bring my notebook.