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The Case for Worthless College Majors

September 1, 2021 Jeff Bradford

Thanks to the national conversation about forgiving college loans, there is a lot of talk these days about people who chose a “worthless” college major and are surprised that they can’t find a job that pays enough to pay off their loans.

I’m one of those people who chose a worthless major – two of them in fact: English and philosophy. Looking back, 43 years later, I can say it was one of the best decisions of my life. Not only was I able to earn a good living, but I have experienced the joy of lifelong learning and the fulfillment of a career that actually made the most of my education, i.e., required that I use it. It also led to the freedom of owning my own business for 20 years. And the freedom to sell it and reap its gain.

Thanks to my worthless majors, I’m a professional propagandist, a vocation I truly enjoy. And for this calling there is no better preparation than the study of how we speak and how we think, and how to do both well: English and philosophy.

If you are literary man, public relations is your dream job. Essentially, you get to write term papers on a variety of topics, feeling free to dip into the knowledge and ways of thinking that a liberal arts education affords. Sometimes, you can even make literary references, that even illiterate people can understand. That is, create helpful jargon. Which is pretty good. It’s art.

And people pay me and my associates to do this. Pretty well, actually. Well enough that another, larger agency in another city decided to merge with our agency.

And that is the life and business case for the liberal arts.  And here it is broken down into four easy steps:

  1. Follow your bliss
  2. Organize
  3. Focus
  4. Discern

I think life and business success depend on this quartet. You begin by following your bliss, which means finding it, of course, by being introspective, aware of what you are thinking and feeling. For me, this process led to art. I’m fascinated by the “artifice” of language, for example – working out the most mellifluent and economic way to communicate, whether in words or paint or sculpture or recipes. That’s fun. And I learned this from reading literature, which is not just good writing, but good ideas expressed well.

But, at some point, the young artist learns philosophy, and then it’s a new world. Empirical. Guided by reason. Organized and objective. And wisdom is there, too. For instance, knowing the difference between Platonic and Aristotelian philosophies, and the benefits and deficits of each, helps me to weigh and wade through ideas – whether for a news release or buying a new copier for my business. Reason is an anchor.

So, thanks to my worthless majors, I know what makes me happy: art. (The reason I majored in English.) And, thanks to philosophy, I know how to navigate the passage. That is,  I know where others have trod, the systems they worked out. The marriage of art and philosophy made me a master propagandist, one who can sniff out the situation, advise on the best course and communicate it elegantly. AKA a public relations expert.

With this artistic and philosophic base, add ego. A focus. A self-defined narrowing of interests and perception to acquire mastery. This process is not affected by education. Savage men can be very focused and effective. This is discipline and perseverance. It’s character.

The first and last stage of life and business is discernment – being able to judge which is best. Which requires knowledge and self-awareness: reason and art. We end where we started, like a uroboros. The dragon eating his tail, universal symbol of both cycles and unity, which is, itself, aesthetic wisdom.

And that is why a liberal arts education is valuable, or can be. It helps you understand what makes you happy and provides a roadmap to happiness. Just add discipline and focus, and this liberal arts brew allows one to choose wisest in both business and life.

Now, a word about a word: propagandist. Why would I knowingly use such a vulgar term to describe my profession? Because I use the word as it was originally coined. As I put it in the “About the Editor” section of my personal blog, “The Joy of Propaganda:”

“The word ‘propaganda,’ which is Latin for ‘propagation,’ originates with the Roman Catholic church, which established the Congregatio de Propaganda Fide, or “congregation for propagating the faith,” in 1622 to handle the Church’s mission activities. Thus, propaganda truly began as a joyful enterprise, and Mr. Bradford believes it still can be.”

At least, that’s one explanation. I also just think it sounds much better than “public relations practitioner,” the aesthetically catastrophic nom de plume bequeathed by PRSA or some other prude who always seems to be the official voice of my vocation.

And, being able to make an aesthetic decision – which combines emotional and rational discernment – is the essence of PR. It is knowing which metaphor to evoke, how to judge a public sentiment, the choice of fonts in a headline – in order to make something happen: a sale, a vote, a like.

I prefer “propagandist” to “public relations practioner” on aesthetic grounds alone. And for a worthless major, that is enough. And everything.

(Originally published in Forbes.)

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