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Dirty Little Secrets

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Someties I don’t write this blog because I’m backed up with work, and sometimes I don’t write it because I don’t seem to have something to say.

But today, I have so much to say, and it’s so difficult to organize, that I barely know where to start.

Let me put aside a few issues for a later post, first. 

To begin with,  I  wasn’t suggesting that anybody should actually spend $25,000 a year or more on a college education.  The issue was whether or not a thorough grounding in the liberal arts–Humanties AND Social Sciences AND Natural Sciences–would be worth that much, and it would be.   In point of fact, the only people who pay that kind of money for college are kids with very rich parents and very bad grades.  Virtually anybody else will get enough financial aid to reduce the cost of the trip to more more than $8000 even at the most expensive places.

It also hadn’t occured to me to envision a sudden collapse of science in the way people here did.  I was thinking more in terms of a gradual retreat over time, not a violent dislocation.  And I’m well aware of the fact that the Greeks and Romans of the classical period lacked virtually all our technology, and yet still weren’t mired in universal resistance farming.  Nor was learning restricted to the rich.   In classical Athens, especially, it was largely the  preoccupation of the emergent middle class.

Then there’s the issue of whether or not the scientific method was “accidentally” discovered by an “elite.”  It’s the kind of statement that makes me all the more convinced that we should have a required overview of this stuff on the high school level, if only so that people could get this history of ideas more or less straight.  No, there was nothing accidental about it.  And since students of the Humanities would study not just literature, painting and music, but philosophy and history, and since philosophy included Natural  Philosophy until very recently, and since natural philosophy is what we later decided to call “natural science” instead–okay, I’ll do that later.  It’s an interesting subject.

But right now, I want to address the contention that studying the Humanities means ending up flipping burges, while studying something “practical” will get you a job.

And my response to that is this:  outside a small set of fields with specific credentialing requirements (nursing, accounting)–no, it won’t.

Lee says everybody she knew who graduted with a degree in the Humanities ended up flipping burgers, and it might well be true–but I also graduated from college in the Seventies, and NONE  of the people I knew who graduated in the Humanities ended up flipping burgers.  Or anything like it.

In fact, I went to one of those colleges where it is impossible to sudy anything practical.  You couldn’t even get a teaching certificate.  There was no “education” major.  There was no nursing, no business, no accounting–it was Humanities, Social Sciences, Natural Sciences, period.

And yet, a good dozen of the people in the class ahead of mine made a story in Time magazine about the excessively high starting salaries being paid to new college graduates.  They’d majored in things like English,  Philosophy and Art History and they were hired by big banks, New York publishing firms, multimedia corporations of all kinds, and on and on and on.

Of the women who graduated from the Vassar College English department when I did, not counting the ones who went on to law school, two are now executive editors of New York publishing houses, one was for many years the South American Bureau Chief for Newsweek, several have been reporters for the New York Times and one is now on the editorial board there, one was hired right out of college as a management consultant and ended up a partner at a Big Eight accounting firm (although not an accountant).

I could go on, but the actual situation is simple–outside a few specific areas, most employers care far less about what you stud than where you studied it. 

The women I knew who got hired for the Times and the Washington Post and Newsweek and Vogue and wherever all beat out applicants with “jouranlism” degrees from less prestigious colleges.  

And the news gets worse the longer you look at it.  In the month before graduation, out campus as inundated with corporate recruiters.  They hired English majors, philosophy majors, art history majors–and then the companies promptly shelled out for an MBA at “someplace good” (like Harvard).

Those people were on track in jobs that at least theoretcially could lead to upper management.  Down the road, these same companies were hiring business majors of various sorts at the SUNY campus, but those hirees didn’t get their MBAs paid for (or the paid time off to finish them), and the track they got hired for had no chance at all of promotion to upper management.

One of the things that drives me the most crazy about the higher education system in the US is this idea that somehow you’re being “practical” to major in business administration or journalism or marketing or whatever, that that path leads to “a good job” and “job security.”

It doesn’t, and the marketing of higher education of that kind as a “practical” path to a “good job” is one of the biggest and most unconscionable scams in American history.

First, to the extent that you need any kind of “college” education at all to get most of the jobs that go to people who major in things like “business administration” and “marketing” at lower-tier universities, you need it because you’re not geing taught what used to be taught in high school.

Get a bachelor’s degree in accounting from East  Podunk U, and you’ll get hired as what used to be called a bookkeeper—a job no different than, and with no better long term prospects than, you could have had right out of high school fifty years ago.

The only real difference, to you as a student, is that the training you needed to get that job was a lot more expensive, and had to come out of your pocket and show up in your life as student loans. 

If you want to actually get anywhere, you’ll have to go back to school and get an MBA.  You’ll have to pay for that, too, and you’ll have to do it at night, which means that the chances of your getting a first-class MBA from a first-class school are slim.

But they’re even slimmer than you think.   The graduate and professional schools evaluate the grades from different schools on a sliding scale.  They’ll take a C+ from a Harvard English major over an A from an East Podunk business major any day of the week, their assumption being that the work at Harvard is infinitely more difficult than that at East Podunk, and that the standards of the two institutitions are widely divergent.

And the law schools?  If you really want to see a scam, look at all those “pre-law” majors at third and fourth tier schools.  Pre-med is a legitimate major because medical schools have particular requirements for entry.  Pre-law majors are a scam because law schools don’t care what you major in, nor will one course of study be more likely to get you into the law school of your choice than another.  If you want to go to Yalee Law, majoring in Chemistry at Princeton will give you a better chance than majoring in “pre law” at Post. 

By and large, the way higher education has been marketed to the American middle class in the years since World War II amounts to an enormous, deliberate and conscious fraud.

One of the problems with this discussion from beginning to end has been the constant equation of “studying the Humanites” with “going to college” and the consequent confusion of problems with the state of American universities with problems of studying the Humanities.

None of what I’ve said above has anything to do with why you should or shouldn’t study the Humanities.

What it does have to do with is that old refrain “I’m paying all this money and I have to get my money’s worth.”

Trust me, outside of about twenty to thirty institutions, you’re not getting your money’s worth, and there’s nothing practical, in the long term, about all those practical majors. 

If you really want to do something practical about getting and keeping a job, then the sanest course of action would be either to find a way to reform the high schools so that you don’t have to waste time and money learning skills you would have learned without ever going to college, or to find a way to circumvent the schools in some kind of third way credentialing process.

But this system is rigged, and you only think that majoring in “business administration” at SUNY New Paltz is being “practical.”  What it is is, at best, a ticket to a rocky existence in middle management or less, with little in the way of possibilities for advancement.

And when you hit your particular glass ceiling, you’ll find that the guy in the corner office running your life started his educational career as a History major at Yale. 

Tomorrow, the history of Ideas, and why the Renaissance didn’t rediscover the classical Greece, and this guy named Theophrastus.

Oh, and a much better way to study the Humanities than going to college to do it, at least these days.

Written by janeh

June 11th, 2009 at 9:59 am

Posted in Uncategorized

6 Responses to 'Dirty Little Secrets'

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  1. You’re arguing from the point of view of someone who can get into a top university and then pay for it – with or without scholarships. I’m thinking from the point of view of someone for whom that would be an absolute impossibility – as it must for a great many excellent candidates since no top university is infinitely expandable in size.

    So when I think of job prospects, I think of what’s practical for me, and the current university/college system is it – with other odds and ends like starting a business from scratch. *That’s* practical. I can’t even describe how alien some of that sounds – maybe it can be partly explained by the fact that the US is a foreign country. To my knowledge, I’ve never met someone from a top-ranked US university. The local movers and shakers didn’t go to such a place, although most if not all of them have a university education. If I had to guess, I’d say most of them studied law, not history or literature.

    I do agree that high schools need to do a better job than they are doing. I don’t think that’s going to solve the problem of needing a nearly irrelevant degree just to get a foot in the door in the competition for a good job -‘good’ meaning steady.

    Gotta go.


    11 Jun 09 at 10:29 am

  2. Sorry – had to go for a while.

    Um, what I think I was trying to say was that ‘good’ doesn’t mean ‘corner office’ or ‘top management’. Not for everyone.

    And that there is a two-fold problem for those without access to top universities – high schools that don’t teach basic literacy, numeracy and history/culture; and employers who, faced with a LOT of applicants, set up filtering mechanisms that often don’t have a lot of connection to skills needed on the job. Yes, I remember that for Mary the ‘university filter’ DOES seem to select for basic literacy and organizational skills, but this wouldn’t be needed if the high schools were better, and in any case the procedure is used by other employers to simply reduce the number of applicants.

    And I really have to go now.


    11 Jun 09 at 11:04 am

  3. I agree, Cheryl, and if I could count on a high school graduate being able to write coherently I’d be glad to drop the requirement for a college degree. But I have five employees, two of whom have degrees. Those two can write, the other three have writing skills that range from almost acceptable to almost completely illiterate (and no, I didn’t hire that one, I inherited him).

    And while I know that Jane’s assertion that the Yalies and Harvard graduates do get opportunities that a lot of graduates of lesser insitutions don’t, I also know that it’s not necessarily true that NOT going to Harvard or Yale won’t relegate you to a lifetime in middle management. Our CEO went to the University of the West Indies – Trinidad and Tobago for his undergrad degree, to (IIRC) Texas for his MS and to the University of Minnesota for his MBA.

    I’m sure it helps that he’s probably one of the five smartest people I’ve ever met, but that’s kind of the point – you get opportunities if you go to Yale, but if you’re smart and ambitious you MAKE your own opportunities even if you went to some island school no one ever heard of.


    11 Jun 09 at 3:11 pm

  4. I’m too tired for a long comment and it probably wouldn’t be coherent.

    “And I’m well aware of the fact that the Greeks and Romans of the classical period lacked virtually all our technology, and yet still weren’t mired in universal resistance farming. Nor was learning restricted to the rich. In classical Athens, especially, it was largely the preoccupation of the emergent middle class”

    Greec and Rome also had large numbers of slaves. Given a lack of machinery, either you do the work yourslf or some other human does it. Every anncieet society seems to have used slaves.


    11 Jun 09 at 3:57 pm

  5. We’ve heard all this before. It comes under the heading of true but irrelevant. Businesses could–and perhaps still do–recruit regardless of major from the 20 or 30 most exclusive schools in the country. They could recruit the freshmen instead of the seniors, and might be better off so doing, because it’s the admissions criteria that make the graduates valuable.
    It’s a system that only works–CAN only work–for the top 1% of collegians. I have my doubts about what if anything is taught in a business administration course, but if my transcript comes from Indiana or Purdue I’ll take the degree in Accounting or Engineering rather than Philosophy, thanks.

    (Truth in advertising: Bachelor’s in History from Indiana, earned entirely at the Fort Wayne extension–which meant every course was caught by full-time faculty, and every course in my major by a PhD–most of them quite recent. I wouldn’t have done half so well on the main campus. And the history learned has been invaluable. Spare me the “learning how to learn” cliche. Studying ANYTHING academic teaches you how to study, so why not study something useful?)

    Some time check out Heinlein’s EXPANDED UNIVERSE. There’s a nice guide in there–using, I believe a then-current University of California course catalog–on how to get a four-year degree while learning absolutely nothing. Twenty years ago, that merited comment.


    11 Jun 09 at 4:01 pm

  6. The study this for “job security” doesn’t even work outside of univerities.

    Qzntas Airways runs a 5 year apprenticeship program for aircraft maintenance engineers. Its supposed to be a field with high demand and security. Now they are laying off senior apprentices.

    The truth is that no one can predict the future. A high demand for X this year, doesn’t tell you what will happen in 5 years.


    11 Jun 09 at 5:18 pm

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