The Urban Dictionary entry for “Gender Studies” is a cesspool of misogyny. There are several definitions for the term, each more sexist than the last, but there’s one of particular interest. “A useless degree that has absolutely 0 job prospects,” it begins. “The most effective way to have a negative net worth for the rest of your life.”
Gender studies is often a go-to punching bag for conservatives, the epitome of what they call “useless degrees.” As of late, it and other so-called useless degrees have been pointed to as a reason why the Biden administration shouldn’t cancel any student debt.
The argument goes something like this: if a student wastes four years studying something that doesn’t matter and won’t lead to a six-figure salary, then that student should be forced to pay back mountains of student loan debt.
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If you’re curious about whether your degree is also worthless, Business Insider made a list of “12 majors that are unlikely to get you a good return on investment.” And because human worth is measured by how much is in your bank account, human worthlessness can be determined by the diploma on your wall. If that diploma says English, film, music or philosophy, I have bad news.
Most useless degrees can generally be umbrellaed under “Humanities,” although there are others (sorry, fellow IDSers: journalism is also a useless degree – The Daily Beast said it was in fact the most useless back in 2011).
Useful degrees are usually in STEM fields or in things like finance. If you’re studying biomedical engineering or computer science, you’ll probably find a cushy job somewhere after graduation.
Now, we certainly need people who know how to multiply and divide. I don’t dispute it, and I know we can’t rely on journalists for that. But after a long day of contemplating the perplexities of y = mx + b, imagine driving home from the office in a world without uselessness. No Taylor Swift to sing along to on the radio. No television shows on demand. No art on the walls, no literature on the shelves and no philosophy in the head.
Oscar Wilde closes the preface of his novel, “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” with the words, “All art is quite useless.” He meant this as the highest praise. Without art life on earth could technically continue, but it’s inconceivable that such a life would be worth living.
Art, music, literature and philosophy – these things give life joy and meaning. Pursuing them is an end in itself. There’s nothing more soulless than making decisions solely based upon expected monetary return.
Our economic system demands this behavior of us. Capitalists don’t care if someone has a keen understanding of patriarchy, and they certainly don’t care if you’ve read a lot of Aristotle. If something isn’t profitable, it isn’t valuable. Uselessness for Wilde was a virtue, but for the capitalists it is the most unforgivable vice.
It’s very strange for me to defend things like film degrees or studying philosophy. The benefits of having trained filmmakers and philosophers in our society are so obvious to me that I find it hard to fathom the opposition. And the idea that people who study film or philosophy should be burdened with incredible amounts of debt seems downright evil.
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One of the goals of universal education, probably its principal goal, is to produce a cultivated society. A society that appreciates beauty and is full of active participants contributing to that beauty. A society antithetical to one that worships money and self-interest. And a society where someone can proudly pursue a degree in gender studies or any other “useless” degree.
One of my favorite passages from Karl Marx comes from his short essay, “The Power of Money in Bourgeois Society.” He concludes the tract with a vision, one I want every reader to contemplate. Marx’s vision is of a society in which the worth of human life isn’t determined by market value, in which power isn’t determined by arbitrary pieces of paper. It is probably one of his most beautiful writings.
“Assume man to be man and his relationship to the world to be a human one: then you can exchange love only for love, trust for trust, etc.,” he writes. “If you want to enjoy art, you must be an artistically cultivated person; if you want to exercise influence over other people, you must be a person with a stimulating and encouraging effect on other people. Every one of your relations to man and to nature must be a specific expression, corresponding to the object of your will, of your real individual life. If you love without evoking love in return – that is, if your loving as loving does not produce reciprocal love; if through a living expression of yourself as a loving person you do not make yourself a beloved one, then your love is impotent – a misfortune.”
Jared Quigg (he/him) is a senior studying journalism and political science.