What are we doing here?

A speech given at the end of the semester, in one of my summary writing classes.

This class has been a complete failure and a waste of everyone’s time, money, and patience on so many levels.

In this class, we’ve been reading texts and trying to summarize them to the best of our abilities. Unfortunately, we’ve been honing a skill that will most likely prove useless. And that is because in whatever job you’re going to grapple with in your future, your employer will NOT ask you to read texts and summarize them. No one will stand in awe at your summarizing skills or admire you for having read and understood a newspaper article accurately. Most importantly, you won’t be able to use these skills as pick-up lines on a Saturday night, drink in hand. 

Let me give you some figures to show you I’m not being wild. 

In terms of employment, we’re on the ladder’s lower rungs. A recent survey conducted by Alma Laurea (the Italian Inter-university Consortium) shows that 82,1% of language graduates found a job within five years after graduation. Those in the literary/humanities group fare even worse: only 77,8% of graduates were employed five years after graduating. That’s acceptable, you might say, satisfactory even. But compared to graduates in the field of information technology (97,2%), engineering (96,4%), economics and architecture (91,8% and 91,6%, respectively), the complete picture becomes rather grim. 

In financial terms, in Italy, the situation doesn’t look promising either. Compared to IT graduates who earn on average €1,871 per month, those in our field earn around €1,389 per month. Architects and engineers get about €1,587 per month plus benefits. A five hundred euros difference might not seem much, yet they can make a difference when bills and rent have been paid at the end of the month. To put it bluntly, compared to STEM graduates, our graduates might find that they have too much month at the end of their money. To put it more bluntly, graduates in the humanities place themselves below the average income of all graduates put together, which is €1,552 per month. 

When choosing a job, the options are also minimal, to say the least. For example, you could become a tourist guide or an interpreter or translator. On the other hand, if you’re lucky enough, you might land a job in a multinational company, where you will be required to interface with foreign clients or other businesses. Or you might work as a foreign correspondent for a newspaper or news office. Or you might become a museum technician and conservator. Yet, most graduates in the humanities end up working as event organizers or as teachers, jobs in which they are either unqualified or overworked and underpaid (as language teachers are most of the time).

Globalization and technology haven’t been kind to us either. Jobs in translating, interpreting, copy editing, and even teaching are increasingly becoming side jobs. They can be outsourced, meaning you won’t be given tenure or a full-time job, and you will lose all benefits that come with that. You will most likely have several contracts with different companies and institutions with diverse terms and conditions. The taxation regimes of those contracts will also be dissimilar, which means that you will have to give some of that money back to the state in taxes every year. 

Juggling jobs can be fun: it means you can do something else every time you get a new contract and build an impressive resumé and a diversified set of skills. But this also means you don’t get any paid leave if you get sick or have a baby. In addition, you will need to work on holidays, and it will become increasingly difficult to separate your job from your private life. For example, I often answer emails from my various employers while on the loo or while brushing my teeth in the morning. 

It goes without saying that none of my employers, except for Unito, require me to summarize newspaper articles. So naturally, therefore, I can’t even put it on my resumé. 

So, unaffectedly, this raises the rather dreadful question, which, I’m sure, has haunted many of you over the years. And that question is: what are we doing here?

Let me give you an anecdote or two.

When I was in primary school, my math teacher would call me names whenever I found it difficult to understand equations. He called me a goat, a ram, a potato. I even got slapped really hard on the back of my neck every once in a while. “You’ll never amount to anything,” he would say whenever I was in front of the class, “what are you going to do with this thing you have for literature?” The sense of shame and purposelessness derived from that public humiliation has stayed with me for a long time. I can still sense it there, in the recesses of my mind, where it turned to rancour and, finally, to acceptance. 

But inherently, it was also humiliation aimed at us, the humanists, the language experts, the literature enthusiasts. More often than not, we’re portrayed as those who escape or hide from reality, only to find haven in the words of someone who died centuries ago. We’re the ones who are afraid of a real job. Men in the humanities are allegedly feeble, effeminate, not men enough. Women are seen as spinsters or obsessive librarians who are only attractive in porn movies.

When I told my high-school English teacher, who had insisted I become a lawyer or notary, that I would study languages at university, she enthusiastically discouraged me from doing that. After all, what would one do with a degree in foreign languages and literature besides teaching? Why toil at something that will eventually prove useless and will only result in educating people who will become just like us?

So let me ask you that dreadful question again: what are we doing here?

The answer is relatively simple, and we’ve been avoiding it or secretly despising it because it doesn’t translate into more money. If you study Information Technology, you are 97,2% sure you will get a job almost immediately after graduating. The same goes for other STEM graduates. But unfortunately, knowing how to communicate effectively in different situations with different people in different languages doesn’t translate into that. It doesn’t equal money. It equals something else, and that something else may turn into cash at a certain point. At most, it constitutes a talent rather than a lucrative skill. And that’s a problem when financial austerity and crises are just around the corner.

I believe that what STEM graduates (and other people) knowingly or unknowingly refuse to acknowledge is that their work would become static without our effective communication systems. They wouldn’t be able to publish their results. No one in this world would be able to move without the humanists and the linguists who painstakingly work, often without getting paid, to streamline communication. To make it easier for us to understand each other.

So please, I beg you, I beseech you: do not bear this shame any longer. You are not less intelligent than your STEM colleagues in any shape or form. Whenever they, or someone else, tries to remind you of that shame, blow a raspberry at them. Tell them that all the knowledge they have about computers, economics, and building skyscrapers was, before all else, a string of words in a book, something that you are masters of.

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