These days George Saunders’ talents are more in-demand than perhaps any other American writer: His latest collection of short stories, “Tenth of December,” recently appeared on the cover of the New York Times Magazine with the headline, “George Saunders Has Written the Best Book You’ll Read This Year.” Heady times. But back in the ’80s, Saunders found himself out of work with an MFA in creative writing — and looking straight into a pile of looming debt. These days he teaches at Syracuse University — in the very same MFA program he once attended. And, over the years, he has developed more than a few insights into the true value of post-graduate education.
Do your students ever struggle with perceptions that an MFA in creative writing isn’t practical? Did you struggle with this when you were a student?
Some of them do, sure. One of the most satisfying things is when a family that has been skeptical comes to our third-year graduation event, hears their child read from his or her work and is converted. Personally, I never felt that way, no. When I got into the Syracuse program I was working as a groundsman, so being in an MFA program was a big step up.
Do you feel that national conversations about higher education are too focused on job preparation?
It seems to me that it is, yes — although maybe that’s not surprising, given the scary job market and the tricky and shameful way that a student loan has basically morphed from a high-minded government program designed to provide civic benefit, into, well, a credit card [with] high-interest rates and merciless payback conditions. Students now are so weighed down with this debt — which seems to me is a kind of welfare program that benefits the banks and the colleges but not the student — that there is, of course, pressure on them to start paying it back… and not go loafing around the desert with a backpack and a copy of “On the Road.”
Is there value in a creative writing MFA beyond becoming a better writer?
Well, I’d argue that the task of working through pieces of fiction or poems helps us become not only better writers, but better people. Writing somehow tends to move us from a position of one-dimensional certainty about a topic to a more ambiguous or even confused state — and that is mind-enlarging. On a more pragmatic level, I think the MFA degree has made it easier for our grads to get teaching jobs. This didn’t used to be true, but increasingly it seems so.