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Vita Brevis; (Liberal) Ars Longa

By Frank Van Riper
Special to Camera Works

Once again, the college degree that I have hanging on my wall ranks near the bottom of potential moneymakers among academic disciplines.

Who would have thought that someone like me-who holds a degree from Harvard Medical School-would be having a hard time making ends meet?

Actually, I do not have a degree from Harvard Med. That's just the frustration talking-over having to scrounge yet another meal from a dumpster and being forced to cadge quarters from passersby on Connecticut Avenue.

Well actually, that's not true either.

In point of fact, I was a liberal arts major-an English major, actually-when I was graduated more than 35 years ago from City College of New York.

According to a recent report on the CNN/Money Magazine website, of 19 degrees and academic fields surveyed, liberal arts majors once again ranked near the bottom in terms of starting salary-barely clearing $30,000 annually. Psychology majors fared worst, averaging a paltry 25 grand a year, assuming anyone outside of Mickey D's or Burger King would even hire them.

By contrast, engineering types and computer geeks figured to net well over $50,000 annually right out of college. Even mechanical engineering-traditionally a less glamorous form of engineering after electrical and chemical-netted its grads a starting salary of $49,000-plus.

Down at the bottom of the salary barrel psych majors and liberal arts folks like me squeezed in with elementary education majors for really crummy first money on entering the job market. (Fledgling teachers were lucky to start at $27,000.)

About the only solace I found in these numbers was that the survey listed liberal arts majors "as a group," meaning that the numbers-crunchers didn't single out from this broad category the single most useless college degree and create still another category of loser to cozy up to English majors, psychologists and grade school teachers.

And what kind of degree is that? you might ask.

Why, a degree in philosophy, of course.

[Oh, did I mention that I also minored in philosophy while attending CCNY?]

It really is a wonder that I can rub two nickels together, given my inauspicious academic beginnings.

Still, despite the grim numbers, I view my liberal arts background as having prepared me for the job market far better than if I actually had been able to understand all the math and calculus in, say, electrical engineering and gotten a degree in that field.

For one thing, if I'd become an E.E., I probably never would have become a photographer. For another, I sure as hell would not have been able to express myself as well on paper (or nowadays, in pixels) if my daily reading consisted primarily of schematics and computer programs.

In the 1700's British lexicographer (and aphorist) Samuel Johnson noted that "patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel." Leaving aside the fact that this perfectly describes the situation of our current president-I'll save that for another column that I somehow will relate to photography-the construction that Dr. Johnson used in the 18th century can apply equally well to today's topic.

The liberal arts, I believe, provide the last refuge for a generalist, especially in these times of ultra-specialization, niche marketing and focus-grouping.

In college I had free rein to wander all over the (non-science) academic landscape. Sure I studied Dickens and Shakespeare-not to mention Immanuel Kant and William James-but I also delved into history, political science, journalism and art. Maybe the best thing I ever did was fritter away my non-class time at the college newspaper, where I got an invaluable grounding, not only in writing on deadline, but also in taking pictures on deadline. I admit: I spent more time at the college paper than I did in class. My grades showed it. For the record, I graduated by the skin of my teeth, having had to attend summer session throughout my college career to undo the damage of all my journalistic activities. When I think back to my senior year, I can't believe I had the kind of energy it took to hold down two part-time copyboy jobs (on the Herald Tribune and the New York Post), an associate editorship of the school newspaper, as well as an academic credit load of 21 1/2 hours in my upper senior term. I needed all those credits to graduate on time. I needed to graduate on time because I had a job waiting for me on the New York Daily News literally one week after commencement.

I landed the job at the Daily News because I was-in the paper's eyes anyway-the journalistic equivalent of a "well-rounded student." Sure I could write well-so could any number of other applicants for the handful of entry-level positions that The News was offering-but I also had been editor-in-chief of the school paper, a photographer for both the paper and the yearbook, and I already had real newspaper experience (at the Trib and Post) under my belt.

So I got the job-and stayed for 20 years.

I may have been born with a talent for writing, but I had to learn to use a camera. I am convinced my college years helped nurture that nascent leaning, simply because the liberal arts encouraged education that made use of all the senses. Even in high school, I sensed a connection between my love of writing and my love of photography. Each was a means of story-telling, and each could reinforce the other. I shudder to think what would have happened if I had chosen one over the other-if, for example, instead of plunging into the yeasty mix of multiple disciplines offered at CCNY, I had wound up in a technical arts college that gave me a hell of a grounding in lenses and lighting, but left me bereft of the music of words-or even of music itself.

Photographer Sean Kernan made much the same point recently.

"I picture creativity as a large room with many doors in it-music, writing, film, painting," he told graduates of the photography and film programs at Rockport College in Maine. "You've gotten used to going in through the photography door, but it can become so clogged with abandoned projects, unexamined ideas, ego, and other trash, that you can't push it open, can't even get near it.

"So what do you do? Just forget photography. Set it aside. Go over to a different door and push on it, and you'll find it swings right open...

"Does this work? For years I've conducted a sometimes workshop for fried photographers. We do exactly what I described here and you can see the ice in their minds breaking up.

"Would it work for writers? Naturally. They would just go take pictures...."

I am living proof of that. After 20 years as a newspaper reporter, I pushed the other door and began seriously to make photographs. Now I combine the two, to my sheer and utter delight.

For years, something like this multi-dimensional approach to learning existed on campuses and paid rich dividends to all. But now it is being pushed aside in favor of undergraduate specialization that purports to better prepare students for the "real" world.

Do tell.

It was ironic that on the same day I stumbled across the CNN/Money Magazine survey on college degrees, I also saw an online piece about the "The Top 20 Recruiter Pet Peeves About Resumes."

And what are some of the things that will rocket your precious resume right into the round file?

Excluding computer errors like bizarre formatting, bad font choices, unnecessary graphics or URLs, nearly half the rest of the complaints had to do with simply piss-poor expository prose.

"Spelling errors, typos and poor grammar" made up the #1 gripe of recruiters.

Then came complaints about "long, dense paragraphs", or resumes cluttered with "personal information not relevant to the job."

Let's not forget over-long resumes-more than two pages–or resumes just too difficult to follow.

"Burying important information" in a resume is another invitation to unemployment.

So what's a poor, semi-literate job-seeking college graduate to do?

Hire a down-at-heel English major, for starters, and let him or her punch up your sorry CV, or at least make it readable.

In fact, what this points up, to me anyway, is that an engineer, or an economist, or an accountant-or a graduate in any of the other disciplines that command more money than the liberal arts-could have placed him or herself at the head of the recruitment line simply by having taken a few courses in English composition or, dare I say it, philosophy, during four years of college in dogged pursuit of a chosen field.

Philosophy? Yes, grasshopper, because as a matter of fact, what my philo courses taught me was to think logically-not a bad talent to have in any field.

Frank Van Riper is a Washington-based commercial and documentary photographer and author. His latest book is Talking Photography (Allworth Press), a collection of his Washington Post columns and other photography writing over the past decade. He can be reached through his website www.GVRphoto.com.

©Frank Van Riper
Yes, there is a place for specific learning-in grad school or in workshops and seminars. But the benefits of a liberal arts education should never be sacrificed on the altar of specialization, or worse, for preparation for the "real" world.


Talking PhotographyAlready acclaimed as the photographer's bedside companion, Talking Photography (Allworth Press, $19.95) is award-winning Post photography columnist Frank Van Riper's ten-year collection of his favorite photography columns and essays. This lavishly illustrated paperback already has garnered rave reviews from all walks of photography for its breezy, informative style and unbounded enthusiasm for making pictures.

To order directly, go to: Allworth Press

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