“Are you going to teach?” and Other Stupid Things People Say

I’m starting to wonder if people actually listen to themselves as they speak. Watching Michelle Bachmann or Sarah Palin is enough proof to the contrary, but in this case I’m referring to ordinary people, far far from the political spotlight. They’re aunts, parents, friends, even teachers who should know better. They all say the same thing, totally oblivious to how defeating a simple question can be.

All you English, Philosophy, Music, Art, or Theater majors can say it with me. On three, ready? One… Two…

So you’re getting a Music degree, eh? You going to be a music teacher?

I thank God that I never grew so frustrated with that question as to shout back, “no, I’m actually learning this shit because I intend to use it.” It seems unfathomable to most people that a degree in anything but Engineering, Business, Law, or Medicine could ever be used for a wage-earning skill other than teaching that skill to others. I didn’t take more than two decades of piano lessons just so I could be another part-time piano teacher.

The irony is that, when I was in college in the late 90’s, nobody asked all my Computer Science friends if they planned to teach Computer Science. It was assumed that they’d step off the commencement stage directly into the limo that would whisk them to their cushy Silicon Valley job. Maybe if someone asked them The Stupid Question a few of them might’ve pondered alternate career tracks. You know, just in case their entire industry was propped up on an ever-weakening economic bubble.

Do people ask Education majors if they plan to teach other aspiring teachers about how to teach? That concept just seems too recursive for me to focus on right now, so forget I even mentioned it.

My problem isn’t with the act of teaching; I have great respect for those with the patience and knowledge to make someone else smarter. Teaching anything requires a skill set I simply don’t possess and the great teachers wield it with all the skill of Stevie Ray Vaughan on a guitar. No, my frustration lies with the question itself. Roughly translated, it reads something like this:

So you’re getting an English degree, eh? You know you’ll never actually earn a living as a writer, so what’re you going to do to pay the bills? You going to be an English teacher?

There are a very small number of people who will become “famous” thanks to their artistic endeavors, but everyone has to earn a living. Those aspiring programmers I knew ended up in jobs ranging from network admins to gas station attendants. All of us have one simple task before us: Create something of value and earn compensation for it. Artists, for the most part, are entrepreneurs by definition. Everyone else can work for an established company and climb a ladder or start their own law firm or software company if they’re brave enough. The fact that no readily available corporate structure exists for artists (there is no mail room or reception desk for Philosophy majors) doesn’t mean they won’t earn a living from their art.

Don’t torpedo someone’s aspirations simply because you’re too narrow-minded to see their path to success.

If you find yourself confronted with a young artist and feel the urge to ask The Stupid Question, ask yourself a couple of questions first:

  1. Are they getting an Education minor? If so, go ahead and ask, it’s no longer a stupid question.
  2. What do I do for a living? How would I feel if people assumed the only way I’d be able to use my education was to teach it to others?
  3. If everyone who got one of these degrees just taught English or Philosophy or whatever, who the hell is writing the books that I read? Who’s making the music I listen to?
  4. Do I want a piano shoved up my ass? (This one’s really just something I wished people would’ve asked themselves before asking me this question in college.)