No one serves up the possibilities and perils of an arts degree quite like Lena Dunham. Like a mirror with two sides, the creator and star of Girls is a real-life English grad who plays an English grad on TV. While Real Lena is, of course phenomenally successful, her alter ego, Hannah Horvath is a misemployed navel-gazer, condemned to a purgatory of coffee bars, unpaid internships and parental cash outlays.

The fear and the clichés are real.  For every child who pursues an arts education, there is a parent who dies a little inside.  The only space dominated by BAs is the abyss between their field of study and their actual job.


Lena Dunham English Degree

On, ‘a career guide for lost humanities majors’, grad students are urged to abandon the ivory tower and get a real job before it’s too late.  The site, a trove of practical, hard-won advice, is the work of Vancouverite James Mulvey, a PhD drop-out who mowed lawns until he figured out how to turn book smarts into a marketing career at Hootsuite.

The volume of positive feedback James receives suggests that deep inside every arts major lies a marketable skill. It’s a notion echoed by Mireille Guiliano, author of French Women Don’t Get Fat.  Mme. Guiliano, a graduate of French and English literature who went on to become CEO of Veuve Cliquot, once assured me during an interview that great communications skills, whether verbal or written, trump intelligence, knowledge and experience as the secret to business success.

Philosopher Alain de Botton also sees untapped value in a humanities degree. He thinks universities teach arts and culture all wrong.  In his view, literature, histories, psychoanalysis and painting should be studied in a way that helps society address its most urgent dilemmas.  Rather than being featured in a course on 19th Century Literature, for example, Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary should headline a module on managing the tensions of marriage. Instead of frothing lattes and cutting grass, BAs could graduate as experts in soul-related work, equipped to help others bond with children, reconnect with nature, change jobs, and face illness and loss.


Lena Dunhan English Degree Department Relationships

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Until this actually happens, I’m thinking arts majors can still take a cue from de Botton’s playbook to channel their learning into the real world. Beyond communications, research and editing, BAs have been trained to analyze characters, plot points and dialogue.  This – knowing how to read people, anticipate situations, and catch details and opportunities others may miss – is the epic, transferable skill English grads can get working for them.

The Co’s Katherine Gougeon explores social and cultural details that have an outsized ripple effect. Follow her on Twitter @kgougeon