I always took Matilda that bit too seriously when I was a kid. I had a spherical brown bob and book permanently welded under one arm, and I truly believed that if I concentrated enough, I could make my morning Weetabix somersault across the kitchen. The way I resonated with her the most, though, was with my love of reading. My wobbling Jenga tower of Jacqueline Wilson, Cathy Cassidy, and Harry Potter books wasn’t the most secure of sanctuaries, but it’s where I felt most at home.
To the surprise of precisely no one, English ended up being my favourite subject at school. Everyone would groan when the AQA poetry anthology was brought out, but secretly, there was nothing I loved more than unpacking the meaning behind every single word. I felt like I was pulling rainbow-coloured handkerchiefs from a magician’s sleeve. People say that the humanities isn’t scientific, but to me it was like a puzzle: piecing together every word, comma and fleck of intonation in order to uncover the picture that lay between the lines.
Taking both English language and English literature as separate A-Levels seemed like an obvious choice – but that was when I came across the first raised eyebrow: the first of many to come. I was actively discouraged from carrying both subjects to Year 13 because it wasn’t “employable”. I didn’t know a lot about what “employability” meant at that stage, but I quickly realised that, for my headteacher, for Ucas, for my future, “liking” something wasn’t enough anymore. It’s embarrassing to admit, but respect from my peers and superiors was something I craved almost insatiably.
Despite getting top grades all through school, I was constantly left out of “gifted” programmes in the same way I was in the playground. I was constantly underestimated and talked down to because I was autistic and because I didn’t have a firm plan for the future beyond pottering along with my books.
Truth be told, I felt like I had to prove to people that I could be someone: that I was destined for greatness. I thought that if I could get a prestigious job, that would make all the bullying for being a “geek”, all the time I spent reading not a sad chapter in my history, but something worthwhile.
So, I decided to go to law school. And I lasted four months.
Starting university is intimidating for anyone, and at the start, there was that sense of camaraderie when me and my peers got plunged into this world of contract and constitutions together. But something was missing. My peers gradually settled in: staying alert in class, enthusiastically participating in mock trials and enthusiastically chatting about the internships and pupilages they were going to apply for.
Did I want to be a solicitor or a barrister? What was my view on the latest ruling by the Supreme Court? Wasn’t the idea of doing this for the next 50-odd years of my life exciting? Truth be told, I couldn’t think of anything worse. I saw the rest of my life stretched out in front of me as an endless, greyscale void that absorbed me until I was completely colourless too. Waking up every morning, trapped in a life I didn’t want but didn’t know how to escape from, caused me to sink into a deep depression.
I hated law, but I felt I had to see it through because it was constantly reinforced to me that I had to do something “employable”. My parents didn’t go to university: they found their own way in the world, and so I wanted to do the same. I wanted to make decisions that were responsible and “the right thing to do” in order to get that ever-elusive Good Job.
Doing a subject I liked just because I liked it was presented as impractical, and I told myself I just had to get through the rest of this degree, and then I’d be in the job and be happy at last. But eventually, I got tired. And I don’t just mean literally tired (I fell asleep when Lord Neuberger visited my law class), but tired of waiting for my life to start. I waited my whole life to leave home behind and become my true self at university: I couldn’t stand the idea of waiting anymore.
I don’t know the precise moment I decided to swap, but when the student newspaper quite literally fell into my lap, I found colour returning to my world for the first time in months. Reading, writing, analysing: I didn’t realise how much I missed it. Some might say I was impulsive, but within 48 hours I had run back and forth between the two different campuses to formally withdraw, write a new personal statement, and apply for the English course starting the next academic year.
I pored over the reading material and module outlines with the same enthusiasm I feigned in law school, and realised that I wasn’t just a reader: I was a writer, too. I still ended up finishing the year, just because it was something to do, but this time, I didn’t mind waiting a little bit because there was light at the end of the road. It wasn’t a void anymore.
To keep up to speed with all the latest opinions and comment, sign up to our free weekly Voices Dispatches newsletter by clicking here
Changing to English literature was a huge risk, and one that came with a lot of sneering and stigma, but it was, without a doubt, one of the best choices I have ever made. The government is wrong about English degrees not being valuable. Not only did it give me comprehension and analysis skills that I used every single day, but it also allowed me to fall in love with life again, and gave me the transferable skills to dabble in all kinds of internships and opportunities across marketing, the third sector, copywriting, and education, before eventually settling on journalism.
Sometimes, I wonder what my life would be like if I stuck it out with law. If I did, I would most probably be participating in the current barristers’ strike, where countless young people who were promised a life of financial security and prestige are now walking out of courtrooms after overwork and underpayment made living a good life impossible for them. I fully stand behind anyone and everyone taking industrial action, but it’s hard not to see the irony. If I took the advice the government is giving to sixth formers now, I’d undoubtedly be worse off.
So, take it from someone who’s been there and done both – “unemployable” degrees aren’t the problem. It’s the organisations and government making current employment conditions impossible that are the real issue. The government is using arts and humanities degrees as the scapegoat for their own failures. Nobody should be denied the opportunity to do what they love.