Steven Pearlstein: Meet the parents who won’t let their children study literature

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169 Responses

  1. Will Truman says:

    One of the funny sections of the article is this:

    It would be a mistake, of course, to attribute salary differences solely, or even primarily, to the choice of major. One study by economists at Yale found that half of the premium earned by STEM majors can be explained not by what they learned in college but by the greater intelligence, diligence and other characteristics that they brought to those majors in the first place. Or to put it another way, they would have earned more no matter what they majored in.

    Which is what a lot of us say about a lot of people in college generally.

    It’s hard to tell where the actual benefits of college end, and where what completing colleges signifies begins. The same goes for majors.Report

    • Chip Daniels in reply to Will Truman says:

      My experience in the business world has demonstrated that quantifiable skills are the cheapest and least valuable, compared to people skills.

      One of the courses that people take in college, without knowing it, is networking and collegiality. But of course there are plenty of other ways to gain those skills.Report

      • I agree with the importance of networking and collegiality, but with an important caveat:

        Networking within the economic and demographic subset of the college which you attend, and collegiality to their norms.

        I attended a very large public university. I was in the Honors College, which was selective, and I was in the College of Industrial Technology. There was little overlap. In fact, I was one of three students in both, out of a few hundred. As you would imagine, the Honors College was pretty selective. The CoIT was as selective as the university itself, which is to say only moderately so.

        It was two different worlds. The norms one picks up are different. The degree and value of the networking involved were pretty different. The nature and depth of the communication were also pretty different. And a lot of the value of the Honors College as compared to the College of Industrial Technology (and vice-versa, to a lesser extent) was based in part on who wasn’t invited, or who never thought to apply.

        All of which is substantively important, though pulling us in different directions (go to college or don’t bother, major in liberal arts or go with STEM, etc.)Report

      • Saul Degraw in reply to Chip Daniels says:

        We used to call this being “clubbable” Of course being clubbable was largely related to socio-economic (and racial-religious status). William Bradford IV might have been dumb as a bag full of rocks but he knew how to make a good Martini, wasn’t bad on the golf course or a yacht and had a kind of effortless ease about him. Saul Stein from the Lower East Side was such a bore. He always had his face in a book and really unkempt clothes or he looked like he was trying too hard.

        Now I think the definition of clubbable has expanded. You can be clubbable and be Jewish or Asian or non-WASP these days but there are still problems. The brass ring jobs still seem to go to people who fit the “culture” and this can translate as “clubbable.” This makes it hard for the introverted and bookish or off-beat to gang footholds sometimes. Goldman Sachs and other big firms still have reputations for party-hard cultures and doing things like outings at strip clubs. What if someone is not interested in this? Do you have to go along get along or just go somewhere else?

        Society seems to have trouble getting the balance right. The plum jobs used to be reserved for the clubbable which meant upper-class WASPs with some alternative businesses in minority communities. Bear Sterns, Goldman Sachs, Lehman Brothers, Solomon Brothers, Proskauer Rose, Paul Hastings, etc used to be know as “Jewish firms” because Jews could not get jobs at White and Chase or JP Morgan. Those days are largely gone but we seem to have gone too far into great school, great grades, or nothing in return.Report

        • Chip Daniels in reply to Saul Degraw says:

          This makes it hard for the introverted and bookish or off-beat to gain footholds sometimes.

          That would be me.

          I am the quintessential bookish technocrat. Which is how I made this discovery, when I was several times “promoted” to manage people, which I hated, and never ended well.

          Its not that technical people are cast out into poverty- its just that we don’t capture the “brass ring” jobs as you call them. Those tend to go to people who can sell things, convince others of things, and navigate the tricky waters of group dynamics and personal relationships.

          When I was asked to join the firm I am at, I demanded that I not be asked to manage others, that I be allowed to spend the bulk of my time drawing and solving problems.

          For me, this is the “brass ring” job, even as I know that the manager above me earns a lot more. But he doesn’t draw, instead he spends his days talking to people, sitting in meetings, calling and cajoling and persuading others, the very tasks that I would wake up each morning dreading, if I had his job.

          Which leads me back to the article; The world depends on many different people with many different skill sets. Its lunacy to imagine that everyone needs to be a STEM major, any more than it would be to imagine that everyone needs to be a salesman.Report

          • El Muneco in reply to Chip Daniels says:

            Every single manager I’ve ever had who followed the “programmer -> lead programmer -> manager” career path (rather than e.g. the “programmer -> lead programmer -> system architect” career path) has told me in so many terms not to make the same mistake. It’s a distillation of the tasks you didn’t want to do, and it relies on qualities other than the ones that got you promoted in the first place.Report

            • Michael Cain in reply to El Muneco says:

              When I retreated from management at Bell Labs (honest, that was the official term on the change-of-status summaries all managers got: promotion, demotion, lateral, or retreat), department heads I had never met called me up to tell me that I had made the right choice.Report

              • At least you had the choice, as have I, now and at most of the places I’ve worked. But there are still lots of organizations where becoming a manager is the only way to get promoted.Report

              • Troublesome Frog in reply to Mike Schilling says:

                One of my previous employers had to reclassify me as management because I had reached the top pay tier on the engineering side at age 28. Plenty of headroom if I became a manager, though. This was a tech company acquired and run by old school finance types.

                When asked about all of the perks that managers got that weren’t available to the regular employees, the CEO said that it was a great policy because it gave us regular schmucks something to aspire to.

                I’m sure the company would be unstoppable if they could just make 100% of their employees into managers. They could stop spending all of that money on developing/shipping products, become massless, and accelerate immediately to the speed of light as luminous, noncorporeal beings of pure energy.Report

            • DensityDuck in reply to El Muneco says:

              This is usually because programmers are lazy, and don’t feel it’s worth taking the time to figure out how to not be incredibly insultingly rude to people.

              “people skills” are not some rare gift that only certain blessed blonde angels are gifted with. You can learn them same as any other skill. It’s just that our culture still clings to the fantasy of the guy who’s too smart to care what you think, and since most people think by linking images in their brains they figure that any tech worker who’s rude must be incredibly smart and therefore justified in his rudeness.Report

              • You’re a programmer, then?Report

              • DensityDuck in reply to Mike Schilling says:

                Oh, sick burn, bro. You take all day to come up with that one?Report

              • Kimmi in reply to DensityDuck says:

                Au Contraire. People skills are something that 85% of people are born with, and really can’t train, because they lack the skills that would enable them to get better (they’re also pretty boring).
                The rest of us? Have to work like hell to get halfway decent. Upshot? You’re able to tweak how personable you are, how well you’re getting along. And the best conversationalists aren’t natural conversationalists (think comedians. often naturally awkward people, but very very creative. fascinating people, really).Report

          • Brandon Berg in reply to Chip Daniels says:

            The missing link in this argument that I never actually see filled in is the assumption that a curriculum light on quantitative skills is going to teach management or sales skills. And I just don’t see it. Maybe psychology? If there’s an observed correlation between majoring in humanities and having people skills, it’s entirely plausible that it’s due mostly or entirely to self-selection.

            This is somewhat supported by the fact that almost all of the highest-paying majors require strong quantitative skills. Yes, there are some outliers, but only a tiny percentage of English or history majors become CEOs of large companies. At least up to the 90th percentile, and probably higher, TEM pays better.Report

        • I’ve certainly thought of people like that as clubbable.Report

    • Saul Degraw in reply to Will Truman says:

      There is also the fact that if you get into a super-elite university like Yale or Harvard, you are almost certainly going to be winning the economic race with a few exceptions of really bad luck, major personality disorders, and potentially if you are an addict. After all, the brass ring jobs of consulting, banking, and top tech companies seem to mainly or exclusively recruit from a handful of elite/selective schools while ignoring other elite/selective schools.

      Yet there are parents who still question the power of a BA that says Harvard College and want their children to pick something practical. Though if you click on the Times link that was only one parent.

      Some things I’ve noticed anecdotally.

      1. First-generation college students and/or the children of immigrants seem to be pushed heavily into engineering and/or other practical majors. Perhaps this is a bit of stereotype but it often seems to have a good amount of truth. Someone I know went to UC-Irvine and she described most of the student body as first-generation Asian-Americans whose parents forced them to study engineering or pre-med.

      2. On LGM when this topic comes up, people have told anecdotal stories about MIT students who told their parents they were studying business when they are studying physics and of parents who disowned their kids because the kid switched from computer science to electrical engineering or some other science. So even among STEM fields and really good tech schools, there is a hierarchy of acceptable majors.

      3. The Liberal Arts could potentially be a relic from the days when most college students were born rich and/or into the elite instead of the modern version which is something or other. Now I don’t want to go back to the days when college education was only for the already rich largely. The old way doesn’t strike me as desirable. But back then, studying the liberal arts was probably a bit of a signal that you came from the right sort of people (read: you were upper-class). We used to also talk about the Gentleman’s C. Only striving scholarship students (read: poor kids) hit the books and got As. C.P. Snow noted that among his generation of British scholars, the working-class kids tended to go into the sciences and the wealthy kids into the Arts and Humanities.

      4. There seems to be a certain level of wealth or comfort needed for the arts and the humanities to be a thing. Even then it could be split. I’ve noticed among people who grow up comfortably upper-middle class (but not independently wealthy) that parents either say one of two things to their progeny. They either say “You are smart. You should study something that interests you and everything will work out eventually. You will find your path.” Or they say “Your future is not secure. You need to pick something practical if you want the kind of lifestyle your parents had.” I’m not sure what causes the split among the upper-middle class in terms of college major advice. My parents were in the first group. When I was young, they did try stuff like sending me to science camp but when they discovered I was an arts-kid, they did not erect any barriers or firm walls of no. On the other hand, I knew a girl whose parents refused to let her do the Spring Musical because it would get in the way of AP exams and other academic things.

      4. What surprises me as a society is that we don’t talk about burn out very much. The girl I mentioned above graduated from her Ivy League undergrad in three years. She is know a mother of two and posts essays on facebook about the importance of unstructured play. I suspect that all the pressure caused her to burn out. I’ve also seen a lot of people be pushed by their parents into good schools and then the well-paying jobs that demand around the clock work but pay good salaries. A lot of these people burn out after a few years and end up doing something super-mellow and laid back.Report

      • LeeEsq in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        Liberal arts and the humanities acted as default majors for the people who knew they needed to go to college to get that middle to upper middle class job but didn’t have anything in particular that they wanted to do for living for decades. The creation for more speciality and practical majors and the seeming necessity of those might have cut down on the need for people to study the liberal arts and the humanities. They could study business light majors instead.

        On point four, I’ve never that particular woman post anything about unrestricted play on Facebook. If she did so, she did so once and long time ago. Many of our peers raised by high pressure parents seem to becoming high pressure parents themselves.Report

        • Richard Hershberger in reply to LeeEsq says:

          Liberal arts and the humanities acted as default majors for the people who knew they needed to go to college to get that middle to upper middle class job but didn’t have anything in particular that they wanted to do for living for decades.

          *raises hand*

          Well, that and the courses were fascinating. Reading the course catalog was, to me, like reading the Sears Christmas catalog when I was a kid.Report

      • Are you basing your diagnosis of burnout only on the fact she chose to be a mother and occasionally has written posts on unstructured play? Or are there other reasons for the diagnosis? (I understand if there are. One can’t write everything in a comment.)Report

        • Saul Degraw in reply to Gabriel Conroy says:


          She was an example but I have others. I know lots of people whose parents pressured them to succeed, go to good schools, and get the intense brass ring jobs. Lots of people tend to do those jobs for a few years and then they burn out from years of cramming, all night studying, and all-night working.

          The truth about a lot of the brass-ring jobs like Investment Banking, Consulting, and Big Law is that they are glorified long-term temp jobs in many ways because the human body can’t take that toll. A lot of people get jealous of stories of six-figure salaries and bonuses that are often 4-5x the base salary. What people don’t realize is that for that level of money, your employer has you on beck and call nearly 24/7/365.

          It is not uncommon for people at the brass ring jobs to constantly work hours that are 8:30 or 9 AM to 11 PM or Midnight on Monday-Friday and then still do more work on the weekend. It is not uncommon for vacations to be cancelled at the last minute or for vacation to really mean “I worked three 8 hour days and did two all-nighters but got to relax on Saturday and Sunday for the first time in 8 months.”

          Very few people can do this for decades. At most, people do it for a few years and then move to something at a slower pace after working like hell to save up a nest egg and pay off student loans.

          I even think that the people who do it for a long time end up being psychologically damaged by the toll on the body and lack of rest. They see the long hours as a norm or a contest and end up developing contempt for those who want to work a bit less.Report

          • I’ll buy that. Thanks for answering, @saul-degraw .

            I won’t say I never wanted a “brass ring” job (or would have been able to get one), but one reason I haven’t aspired to one is because of what you describe.Report

          • Richard Hershberger in reply to Saul Degraw says:

            Back about twelve years ago I was considering law school. I also was doing document review work for a biglaw firm. I observed the working conditions for a brass ring job (legal version), and also the economics of law school debt for any other sort of legal job, and passed on the idea. This was before the crash, mind you. The decision has held up very well in retrospect.Report

      • For what it’s worth, my anecdotal observations coincide with Saul’s here.Report

    • Roland Dodds in reply to Will Truman says:

      There is a lot to “unpack” there, but I think there is some general truth here.

      What is more worrisome is how some of the “big” humanities jobs (running foundations, directing non-profits, etc.) are almost always jobs given to people already connected and from the right pedigree. There was a piece a few years back which noted the richer you were going into your degree, the more likely you were to study things like law and humanities. Maybe they know that those good foundation jobs are theres for the taking after graduation?Report

  2. Christopher Carr says:

    This idea that language arts degrees are “soft” and impractical amuses me.

    When I was an undergraduate, I decided to double major: I chose one “practical” field, where I could learn a marketable skill – economics. On top of that I chose another “fun” major – English.

    It turned out that everywhere I went in my subsequent employment, people were constantly asking me to look over their writing, because I was an English major and had garnered a reputation as an effective communicator. I was actually hired for my second job explicitly because of my skills in English communication. When I started translating, I discovered that most important skill a translator can have is not familiarity with the subject matter or skill in the source language, but it is the ability to write well. To add to the irony, at some point in my adult life, I realized that economics is all about making up stories.

    When I eventually decided to become a physician, I found that effective communication and the ability to write well were still the most important skills to have. The verbal component of the MCAT and the personal statement are the most important individual components of the medical school application, and for good reason: ineffective communication has been identified as the biggest detriment to quality medical care. All the morbidity and mortality conferences are about mistakes traced back to “handoffs” – the transfer of information from one physician to another.

    Parents who insist their children not study literature because it confers no practical skills are ignorant.Report

    • Parents who insist their children not study literature because it confers no practical skills are ignorant.

      I’m quite honestly suspicious that this is really what is going on.

      More than that, I’m pretty sure that framing what (I suspect) is really going on as “parents insisting their children not study literature” will result in parents having (what I suspect are) their worst suspicions confirmed and will result in the problem becoming worse.Report

    • Kimmi in reply to Christopher Carr says:

      The most important skill a translator can have is the ability to detect nuance, and specifically when someone from a different culture thinks they’re pulling the wool over someone’s eyes.

      Bad faith is a dealbreaker.

      (This, it is to be noted, is far more important than actually understanding WHAT someone’s saying).Report

    • Kimmi in reply to Christopher Carr says:

      “All the morbidity and mortality conferences are about mistakes traced back to “handoffs” – the transfer of information from one physician to another. ”
      … do not quantify the amount of asprin by drawing a horseshoe on the Medical Record.Report

  3. Jaybird says:

    This article strikes me as one that would have benefitted from acknowledging whether there was a discussion of the possibility of if there were elephants in the room that some might argue ought to be noticed.Report

    • Saul Degraw in reply to Jaybird says:

      What do you think the elephants in the room are and what do you suspect is really going on?Report

      • Jaybird in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        That parents have reason to believe that the course in “Literature” is really a course in “Grievance Studies” and the kids will spend more time going to rallies about how their parents are racists who first engaged in white flight and then engaged in gentrification and how they need to show up at the Free The Nipple rally to get an A in their course on “The Western Literature That Doesn’t Involve DWMs” in order for them to finally finish with a degree in “How To Get Fired From An Unpaid Internship For Making A Powerpoint Devoted To Overturning The Office Dress Code”.

        “No, way. I’m not spending $50,000 a year for you to take that course. You get your ass into AutoCAD 101 right now!!!”

        That’s what I suspect the parents are thinking.

        If you’d like, we can discuss how ignorant the parents are to be thinking that.

        I honestly think that the discussion of how ignorant the parents thinking that are would be more fruitful than the discussion of how ignorant the parents who don’t want their kids to take literature courses are.Report

        • Saul Degraw in reply to Jaybird says:


          Interestingly you had an different image of a parent who would not let their kid study literature than I did. You seem to be imaging the parents are white-working class Americans or white, somewhat middle class Americans.

          I am imaging the child is a first generation American and their parents are not from European backgrounds (see my comments above to Will).Report

        • LeeEsq in reply to Jaybird says:

          My idea of parents who won’t let their kids to study literature or any other humanities major is similar to Saul’s. Its a first generation American with immigrant parents who want to make sure that their kid is going to be alright after college or maybe the first or second generation to go to college. Middle to upper middle class parents where families have a generational history of going to college seem more likely to allow their kids to study one of the liberal arts as their majors.Report

          • Jaybird in reply to LeeEsq says:

            It’s not that difficult to change my sentence and make it fit first generation immigrant parents.

            That parents have reason to believe that the course in “Literature” is really a course in “Grievance Studies” and the kids will spend more time going to rallies about how their parents were exploited by the racists who first engaged in white flight and then engaged in gentrification and how they need to show up at the Free The Nipple rally to get an A in their course on “The Western Literature That Doesn’t Involve DWMs” in order for them to finally finish with a degree in “How To Get Fired From An Unpaid Internship For Making A Powerpoint Devoted To Overturning The Office Dress Code”.

            There you go. Minimal text changes.

            I don’t even have to do anything for “No, way. I’m not spending $50,000 a year for you to take that course. You get your ass into AutoCAD 101 right now!!!”Report

        • greginak in reply to Jaybird says:

          The parents who are freaking out over grievance studies are deep in the Rush/Fox stereotype zone. Their kids are either going to escape their parents or more likely were never going in that direction in the first place. But those stereotypes are real useful for moving a discussion forward aren’t they.Report

          • Jaybird in reply to greginak says:

            Greg, I’m not saying those parents are right.

            I’m saying that the argument over how the parents aren’t right would be more fruitful than the one over how the parents don’t want their kids to read Chaucer.Report

            • greginak in reply to Jaybird says:

              Not seeing your point at all. Most of this is dabbling with stereotypes and generalizations.Report

              • Jaybird in reply to greginak says:

                There are parents who are texting their children in the middle of seminars about why they should take literature courses saying “GET OUT OF THAT SEMINAR”.

                I’m offering an explanation as to why the parents of these children are sending these texts and using all caps.

                Moreover, my explanation is one that explains why the explanations of Steven Pearlstein are going to make the problem worse in the short term.

                If you want to argue about how the parents are wrong, that’d do a better job of addressing why parents are sending these texts than Steven Pearlstein did.Report

              • Kimmi in reply to greginak says:


          • Stillwater in reply to greginak says:

            I don’t think Jaybird is offering a justification for those parents’ views, just a description of their reasoning. And I gotta say, I’m not a Rushite or a Trumper or a SoCon or etc, but I also have a problem with the way literature, art and social sciences generally are taught. Critical theory, post-structuralism, post modernism generally, are, in my view, insidious ideological frameworks from which to view the world, tho they are, in a very real sense, paradigmatic of “academic” thinking.

            That’s not to say they aren’t intellectually interesting. I mean, who wouldn’t think a third-wave feminist critique of Hamlet’s famous “to be or not to be” soliloquy isn’t worth a “research”? Or a read?Report

            • greginak in reply to Stillwater says:

              How many people are really all that aware of those things? I doubt most people are and at least some of people who are aware are fine with it. I generally agree with you about those movements. But the people who are most inflamed about “academic thinking” are Rushites. They are the ones who see plots and generations being indoctrinated and horrors. The people Jay proposed will be Rush/Foxers, just based on the way Jay framed it.Report

              • Will Truman in reply to greginak says:

                Aware of the particulars of the notion? Probably not many.

                Aware of the general sense that sending your kids to college runs the risk of being a Mizzou protester and that the people protesting probably didn’t major in business? Probably quite a few.

                (Maybe the protesters did actually major in business. Or they are perfectly distributed among majors with the rest of the student body. Or, even if you as a parent made them major in business they’d still be out there protesting. These are all among the sorts of things that, whatever among them might be true, they wouldn’t know.)Report

              • greginak in reply to Will Truman says:

                It depends how many college kids/college parents these hypothetical parents actually knew. There have been protests, some goofy, some not so goofy. The goofiest ones got a lot of press but very few actual college students actually ever protested. The media magnified and distorted the actual level of protests that occurred. Most kids went to class, got degrees, watched football and went about their business. And of course some college students have always thought about a dozen different majors and planned out a dozen different careers, just like their parents did in college.Report

              • Will Truman in reply to greginak says:

                Let’s say we stipulate that parents are responding to mainstream media distortions. If so… they’re still responding and an impact is being had.Report

              • greginak in reply to Will Truman says:

                But if they know many college kids they likely know most college kids are just typical college kids going to class and partying and such. If all they know is the media freak out then they don’t know that they were vast exception to what college kids were doing.

                People know more about college life is like from spending all day watching college kids play football yesterday and tailgating and leering at cheerleaders.

                I’m sure their are people clutching their pearls over “grievance studies”. But that is more about conservative stereotypes of evil liberals then the general profile of what goes on at colleges.Report

              • Will Truman in reply to greginak says:

                You’re arguing the legitimacy of the perspective. I’m arguing the existence of it (beyond hard-right, Fox-watching types).

                It ties into larger things, like whether the kid understands why they’re being sent to college in the first place. For some parents, wanting to major in English, indicates that they do not. Just like those protesters.

                I saw this play out twenty years ago, and I suspect it’s playing out today. Except today, the stakes are perceived as higher and the campus environment is more politically heated (it’s an ebb and flow, 1998 was an ebb).

                I mean, if your view is “This is something only Fox-watching rightwingers think”… then I’m pretty sure you’re wrong. I can’t prove it or anything, but I think it underestimates the mentality. It may not be the majority perspective, but I don’t think it’s quite that limited.


              • greginak in reply to Will Truman says:

                As i just wrote somewhere else to Jay i think his point was mostly using goofball stereotypes by conservatives. That isn’t new or different. I don’t see how it generalizes to talking about college kids or education. People can think whatever they want, its just as crazy or legitimate as any other opinion.

                My original response to Jay was just pointing out all he was doing was projecting far out Con stereotypes onto general attitudes as something we need to talk about. But as i’ve said he was talking far more about the C cartoon views and not seeing that most college kids are just typical college kids. Especially at non-elite schools those kids are often very focused on getting a good degree. Poor and working class kids know why they are there and don’t’ have time to protest.

                The people who are worried about wild conservative fears are people invested in wild conservative fears. Is that really that odd a point? But people who buy into the wildest conservative fears are not most of the population. They aren’t the default.Report

              • Will Truman in reply to greginak says:

                The problem is that you’re assuming that this is a right-wing pushed by right-wing outlets that only right-wing people believe.

                I don’t think that’s true at all. I don’t know that it’s a “general attitude” insofar as its held by a majority of parents. But I do think it is (or really might be) an attitude held by enough parents – including those outside the right-wing echo machine – to be noteworthy.

                I don’t think conservatives are especially out of touch here. Even if entirely illegitimate, the optics lately look bad.Report

              • Jaybird in reply to Will Truman says:

                The USSR allowed Soviet theaters to show The Grapes of Wrath for a short while (look at the evils of capitalism!) but they later pulled the movie because audiences were apparently walking away with the lesson that even the poorest Americans could afford a car. (Source.)

                Let’s say that you’re considering sending your kid to college and you read an article that links to this video.

                For a moment, look at this video as if you were a parent considering to send your kids to college. Is your main takeaway concern about the racial incidents that were taking place on this particular campus?Report

              • greginak in reply to Jaybird says:

                I watched part of that video. Indeed kids these days have trouble forming a circle. Maybe it was a post modern circle.

                The person who posted that video, kayla beck, has also like youtube vids titled “Ed the Cuck love feminism”, a vid from Milo Yannipoulous, and “after school satan clubs coming to public schools.”

                So this is far more about conservative stereotypes, many of them bordering on delusional, than anything else.Report

              • Jaybird in reply to greginak says:

                Sure. It’s absolutely about conservative stereotypes. Let’s even stipulate that these stereotypes are not true at all.

                Let’s stipulate that these stereotypes are malicious lies.

                All stipulated.

                We’ve stipulated all of these points.

                You still haven’t argued against my point at all.Report

              • greginak in reply to Jaybird says:

                My point was that you were just trading in far out conservative stereotypes. So yeah i did address your point. There have always been a group of conservatives who are terrified of evvillll liberals. Nothing new about that. How does that relate to a general cultural shift or changing mores or something else.

                So all we’ve got, it seems, is some C’s have cartoonish views of liberals. How is that generalizable to a discussion of college ed?Report

              • Jaybird in reply to greginak says:

                I already stipulated those points, Greg.

                And yet you made them again.Report

              • greginak in reply to Jaybird says:

                So you agreeing to the point i made. I’m not going to argue with that. Still not seeing how that generalizes though.Report

              • Jaybird in reply to greginak says:

                Still not seeing how that generalizes though.

                You’ve made that abundantly clear.

                So let’s go back to talking about how ignorant the parents who believe these childish stereotypes are.

                Don’t you think that they’re ignorant?Report

              • Stillwater in reply to greginak says:


                Do you think the entirety of this dispute can be accounted for by appeal to “conservative stereotypes” of liberals? That’s what Jaybird is challenging you on (I think…:) and what I’d challenge you on as well. As examples, I am not a conservative yet I agree there are problems with academic treatments of the liberal arts/social sciences. Trumwill thinks there’s a real issue here which goes beyond stereotypes. And Jaybird does too. So on this thread you’ve got a liberal, a recently-self-identified libertarian, and a moderate conservative who think the issue can’t be accounted for by mere appeal to “Fox news” stereotypes.

                As Special Agent Cooper once said: “Something is happening, isn’t it Margaret?”Report

              • Jaybird in reply to Stillwater says:

                I’m not challenging Greg on anything because I don’t see how his points are anything but orthogonal to mine.

                My point is that the original article doesn’t address what’s going on and it’s not addressing what’s going on in such a way that will make what’s going on worse.Report

              • Stillwater in reply to Jaybird says:

                I’m not challenging Greg on anything ….

                Which goes some distance in explaining why he doesn’t understand what your point is. 🙂Report

              • greginak in reply to Stillwater says:

                So i’ve been out for while ( good run, very good burrito) My original comment was a response to Jay’s “grievance studies” comment at 12:46. That was , as i read it, all about conservative stereotypes of liberals. That was where i came in and what i was responding to. It seems like he pretty much admitted that somewhere up thread.

                Is there more to discuss then just the stereotypes jay threw out. Yes, i agree there is. But crude stereotypes just get in the way of that. What’s going on? Lots of things: media distortions, a heavy helping of “kids these days”, fears about job, great uncertainties about how our economy is changing, college costs going up. Yeah to all that.Report

              • j r in reply to greginak says:


                That was , as i read it, all about conservative stereotypes of liberals.

                You keep saying that is some sort of conservative stereotype and I don’t see why that has to be the case. This could be the reaction of some Fox News listening reactionary or it could be the reaction of a slightly left of center Hillary supporter who reads all those NYTimes pieces about the person with the MA in Puppetry and six figures in college debt or the Women’s Studies major who is well into her 20s and can only get unpaid internships and has to work as a barista for money.

                I’ve never listened to Rush Limbaugh in my life and I don’t watch any cable news, but if I had college age children interested in the humanities or arts I would dissuade them from Identity Studies majors or going too far down the PoMo wormhole.

                I was a philosophy major myself and at one time had allusions of becoming an academic. Part of what got me off that track was the realization that there wasn’t a very big home for the kind of philosophy in which I was interested and that, if I wanted to get close to that, I would likely have to in departments that leaned toward the kind if Post Structuralism that I found increasingly circular. These are the sorts of things that you don’t realize at seventeen or eighteen, when you’re likely to have a very idealized version of whatever career track you want to head.

                Going back to Jaybird’s original point, we have no idea why that parent sent that text. Heck, we have no idea of that parent sent any text. There are probably a thousand different reasons why parents want this or don’t want that for their kids. It makes for interesting discussion, but once we start assuming motives, the discussion gets a lot less interesting and lot more ideological.Report

              • greginak in reply to j r says:

                @j-r Jay’s original comment i responded to was about “grievance studies” and classes teaching kids their parents are racist. That sounds like pure right wing stereotyping. Women’s studies or identity studies seem to work for some people. Humanities and social sciences are much wider then those things. Getting a degree in psychology can be the start to a fine career. Pomo or identity stuff is only a part of Humanities/Social Sciences so slagging those two big areas based on the problem areas is pretty shallow. Even getting a degree in english or history can work well for some people. Hopefully they know what they are doing and what their degree with get them.Report

              • Jaybird in reply to greginak says:

                As the Jaybird in question, let me point out that I said this:

                That parents have reason to believe that the course in “Literature” is really a course in “X” (where X is a cartoonish caricature).

                Some were more interested in arguing that X was a cartoonish caricature than whether the parents had reason to believe that X existed.

                And here we are now.

                Where Greg is more interested in arguing whether X is true and/or a cartoonish caricature than whether parents happen to believe it, let me point out that my point revolved around the whole parental thing that followed from parents believing that sort of thing.

                Which, apparently, is less important than whether X is true or not.

                Let me point out, we’re still in the context of being baffled why parents would be sending their children texts saying “GET OUT OF THAT SEMINAR AND GO INTO AN ENGINEERING CLASS”. Which is specifically mentioned in the original article.

                With all caps and everything.Report

              • greginak in reply to Jaybird says:

                We’ve got a lot of grist out of that one text i guess.

                For the record i’m sure there are parents freaking out about a million different things including their kids studying not enough/too much, taking to many English courses/not enough English courses, texting to much/ not enough and why aren’t you/are you dating that guy/girl. All those fears are just as valid to the parent.Report

              • Jaybird in reply to greginak says:

                Given that the original article was about how parents were sending that sort of text, yeah.

                We were.

                Would you like to go back to arguing about whether the thing that they were worrying about was actually a thing that indicates whether the people who worry about it were ignorant?

                Because we could!Report

              • greginak in reply to Jaybird says:

                As i remember you admitted to the sole point i made, which was about right wing cartoonish stereotypes. People can worry about whatever they want. My point was about you using RW stereotypes and how silly that is. You could talk about the issue w/o that but that wasn’t your choice. How did that choice work out?Report

              • Jaybird in reply to greginak says:

                Greg, please consider for one second:

                “Did Jaybird deliberately use the most cartoonish example that came to his mind?”

                If the answer to that question is “maybe… maybe he did”, could you please consider whether the issue of “BUT THAT EXAMPLE IS CARTOONISH!” has an impact upon the issue of “parents believe the proposition X, which inspired the issue that the original essayist was writing against, but, for some reason, he never mentioned”.

                If you reach some other conclusion, please let me know and I’ll write some other question for you.Report

              • Will Truman in reply to greginak says:

                Two things have changed:

                1) The stakes have been raised over the last decade.

                2) College protests have been louder, getting more attention, or both.

                And I think the source of the disagreement here is that you believe this perspective is much more concentrated than I believe it is, and that everybody who isn’t subject to Fox News rightfully shares your views of its illegitimacy.Report

              • greginak in reply to Will Truman says:

                I didn’t say their view was illegitimate. Just distorted and cartoonish. There is a big difference. They can have their views just like i have mine. Doesn’t mean theirs, or mine, is based in reality. I’m noting their views are often not reality based.

                Yeah college protests have been getting more attention and more common. But still they are a tiny speck of the general life of college kids. The media is distorting how big a deal they are in general. If people know many college kids they see that they are almost certainly doing all the same things college kids have always done.

                I do doubt many people sit around fretting that their child might fall into the clutches of Foucault or become caught in the web of post modernism. Yup i do doubt that.Report

              • Will Truman in reply to greginak says:

                I do doubt many people sit around fretting that their child might fall into the clutches of Foucault or become caught in the web of post modernism. Yup i do doubt that.

                I don’t think they’re fretting over the particulars. I think they’re fretting over the general and abstract. They may be entirely wrong for doing so. But just because something is wrong does not mean that it is rejected by non-conservatives. Maybe due in part to…

                The media is distorting how big a deal they are in general.

                You think this strengthens your argument, but I think it strengthens mine.Report

              • J_A in reply to Will Truman says:

                There are apparently slightly less than 1,900 four year public and private colleges in the USA. Slighly above 20 million students will attend this fall term.

                How many of these have implementd trigger alerts and safe spaces, hired Deans of Inclusion, and have witnessed protests about culturally appropriated sushi and lack of privilege checking.

                So yes, I also believe that this is totally a media hype. 99% plus of colleges and college students are not a part of itReport

              • Richard Hershberger in reply to Will Truman says:

                The funny thing is that I would be very concerned if my kids were studying Theory, in the Derrida sense, because I believe that to be pointless at best, probably complete bullshit, and positively contrary to learning good communication skills. This stuff was just entering the American academy back in my English major days, but my school was uninfected. I studied Chaucer and Milton, thank you very much.

                On the other hand, I would be proud of my kids for protesting for a good cause.Report

              • Stillwater in reply to greginak says:


                Here’s how I look at it: I’ve been in academia and because of that know (some of) the key words and concepts which identify certain strains of ideological academic thought while folks who haven’t don’t know those really cool terms even tho they see the same things taking place. The only difference is that my familiarity with those concepts might allow me to make a more reason-based argument against a state of affairs they can only identify – and criticize – by pointing and saying “boo”.

                You make a good point, tho, one I agree with, that extending the argument by viewing certain strains of academic thought as evidence of a vast-leftwng conspiracy intent on destroying America from within is a bit different and more expansive – not mention completely effing crazy – than a more focused critique of a particular ideological framework in a specific discipline.Report

              • greginak in reply to Stillwater says:

                I’m sure you’ve been in academia more recently then me. Most of the post modernists type stuff is amazing self marginalizing. It exists and is making itself a joke and mostly unimportant.Report

              • Stillwater in reply to greginak says:

                Most of the post modernists type stuff is amazing self marginalizing. It exists and is making itself a joke and mostly unimportant.

                I think that’s the disagreement, if there is one, between us. My view is that it isn’t unimportant. PoMo has effectively legitimized grievances by constructing theories which (eg) evaluate the world exclusively in terms of oppression. Which institutionalizes an (intellectual) culture of grievances. Seems to me, anyway.Report

              • Richard Hershberger in reply to Stillwater says:

                My brother the chemistry professor used to say that he would welcome it if the PoMos took over chemistry departments, because that would mean more grant money for him.

                While the culture of grievances is a real thing, its correlation with PoMo theory is not obvious to me. The Rush/Fox News crowd manages it without the benefit of PoMo theory.Report

              • Kolohe in reply to Richard Hershberger says:

                Au contraire, the Trump nomination is entirely a victory of Post- Modernism over a half century of GOP norms.Report

              • LeeEsq in reply to greginak says:

                During the 1950s, a conservative American magazine had a cover that expressed Jaybird’s sentiments. The topic was current, by 1950s standards, international politics and it involved a vaguely Jewish looking professor talking to White American kids about Asia and colonialism. The feature was about taking college back and what conservatives could do about out it. These are very old fears.Report

              • greginak in reply to LeeEsq says:

                Sigh….Yes conservatives have been afraid of eviiilllll liberals perverting the yutes. Emphasis on conservative. That was the issue i was pointing out in Jay’s original point. It was heavy on Fox/Rush stereotypes and therefore more about conservative fears and cartoonish stereotypes than anything else.Report

              • Jaybird in reply to greginak says:

                You still haven’t grasped my point.

                Indeed, my point isn’t about whether the parents in question would be right to think these things, if, indeed, they even think these things at all (which we don’t know).

                What I *DO* know is that Steven Pearlstein’s article is writing about parents who are texting their kids to get them out of literature courses as if the main concern of these parents is that their kids will be reading Chaucer instead of learning Calculus.

                And I think that Steven Pearlstein’s article is avoiding an elephant in the room. A very important elephant. And by not acknowledging this particular elephant, he is feeding this particular elephant.Report

        • Mike Schilling in reply to Jaybird says:

          “No way. I’m not spending $50,000 a year for you to learn about identity-based grievances. You can go to a Trump rally for free!!!”Report

  4. LeeEsq says:

    My brother posted this on Facebook yesterday. It seems relevant to the discussion about parents not allowing their kids to major in the humanities during their college years.

    Parents are naturally concerned for their children’s future and want them to be economically prosperous. There is a growing perception that making one wrong move well damn your kids to poverty for the rest of their life or a good chunk of it at least. Its one of the negative aspects of an increasingly connected world. At the same time, people like entertainment, the fine arts, movies, and books. The pursuit of pure knowledge is important because it helps humans handle tricky policy and political choices. That means that some kids are going to have to bel allowed to study the liberal and fine arts and take a risk. We all can’t be doctors, accountants, engineers, architects, lawyers, financiers, and business people. Its a collective action problem for parents I guess. They want other kids to take the rewarding but impractical and potentially no remunerative option while their kids go onto economic prosperity.Report

    • Will Truman in reply to LeeEsq says:

      Sure. But… we have a surplus. Nor is there any indication that, without encouragement, we will not have a sufficient number. Or, for that matter, that we will not continue to have a sufficient number despite active discouragement.Report

      • Saul Degraw in reply to Will Truman says:

        According to some people we have a surplus of everything including STEM people.

        There do seem to be stories on LGM of people saying “I have a PhD in Virology but even with Zika I can’t get a job. I’m working as a barely paid tutor and the only thing saving me from homelessness is a really good friend.”

        Though I do wonder if LGM gets a selective bias. On the other hand, I have a friend with a PhD in Chemistry. She had an industry job but decided what she really wanted to do was teach college. She ended up being an adjunct, then she ended up as a tutor for Kaplan. Now she is back in the private sector.Report

        • I tend to look askance at PhD’s in general. Even when it comes to STEM. I know some people who have gotten one and it works out, but it should generally be viewed as “risky”… moreso than getting an undergraduate liberal arts degree.

          And as always it’s worth noting how STEM degrees are not created equal. Nor, for that matter, are all Liberal Arts degrees! So something being STEM doesn’t in-and-of-itself recommend it, and something being not-STEM doesn’t in-and-of-itself disqualify it.

          And alsotoo, I am not an “everybody should go into STEM” guy to begin with. If the thought about going into STEM truly depresses you, or scares you… don’t do it. There is a good chance you won’t succeed and even if you do succeed there is a good chance you will be miserable.

          My advice really tends to be more along the lines of “Begin with the end in mind.” What career are you hoping to get? What are the odds of getting it? If you don’t get it, what are some fallbacks and how acceptable are they to you?Report

          • Saul Degraw in reply to Will Truman says:


            FWIW, A woman I went to law school with had a BA in Chemistry and then got a job for a pharma company. She was told she needed to get a PhD to advance in pharma. She decided to go to law school and now does patent/IP type of law.Report

            • Which is certainly fair. I’m skeptical of a lot of upper-level degrees, but I see exceptions for MA/MS all the time. It just depends.

              I have a cousin-in-law who is listless about where her career is going, and wants to go back to school and get an MA then see what happens.

              My sister-in-law works for the government and sees a bunch of doors in front of her that won’t open unless she gets a master’s.

              Obviously, I view these two things differently. Heck, I’d view them differently if they picked the same major!Report

          • Morat20 in reply to Will Truman says:

            The big push for STEM is sort of a generalized slogan in lieu of a solution.

            Clearly the problem is too many English majors and not enough biology majors, so MORE STEM and please do not trouble my mind with things like “Won’t that saturate the market with STEM graduates just like the problem we’re having with lawyers” and “I know like three people with BS’ in biology or microbiology that had “bottle washer” or “get a teacher’s certification” as their only real career options”.

            STEM is also highly regional. There’s a lot of call for chemical engineers here in Houston, but a lot less so in Akron Ohio. My CS degrees don’t go as far here in Houston as they would Austin, there simply aren’t as many jobs in that field.

            The focus on STEM seems to be the illusion of a solution to a problem, not an actual solution. Even assuming all college-bound students can take any major they wish with equal results, shoving more into STEM just means a glut of STEM graduates when there’s really not a huge demand* for them anyways.

            It’s great for driving down labor prices, but it’s not a fix

            *As a software engineer, I am quite familiar with the “We’re dying for skilling programmers! We need so many! We can’t find them, because all the applicants don’t meet our criterie — we’ll just have to get some H1B folks over here, who have half the experience and skills as all the ‘unqualified’ applicants we turned away! We need more programmers we can turn away for cheaper H1B labor!” game. It’s really annoying and very transparent.Report

            • Will Truman in reply to Morat20 says:

              The focus on STEM seems to be the illusion of a solution to a problem, not an actual solution. Even assuming all college-bound students can take any major they wish with equal results, shoving more into STEM just means a glut of STEM graduates when there’s really not a huge demand* for them anyways.

              This more-or-less encapsulates how I feel about the focus on college generally.Report

            • Oscar Gordon in reply to Morat20 says:

              @morat20 that last bit is a good argument for the reform of the H1B system, with a higher degree of evidence that no resident applicants are available.Report

              • Morat20 in reply to Oscar Gordon says:

                It’s a pretty easy scam. You make a list of skills where only a fraction are needed, up the experience quite a bit for all of them, then lowball the salary. Assuming some unicorn meets all your criteria, said unicorn won’t work for that salary.

                Then you import an H1B programmer who meets your real criteria, and you explain the discrepancy as “due to lack of applicants, blah-blah” and “H1B applicant’s cheaper salary allows for on-the-job training” blah-blah-blah.Report

              • Oscar Gordon in reply to Morat20 says:

                Exactly, so make the scam harder, or do something like grant each company 1 H1B per 50 (or 500, depending on company size) salary equivalent employees, and if they need more they can start paying and extra $100K per visa or something.Report

              • Simpler still: take away the restrictions on H1B holders, so they can change jobs like anyone else. If they’re no longer cheaper, there’s no reason to prefer them to people that are already here.Report

              • Oscar Gordon in reply to Mike Schilling says:


                Or that…Report

              • ” take away the restrictions on H1B holders, so they can change jobs like anyone else. If they’re no longer cheaper, there’s no reason to prefer them to people that are already here.”

                Like I said in the other thread, if all the immigrants had green cards then they wouldn’t be cheaper and nobody would want to hire them.Report

              • My God, have you and I ever agreed when we’re not talking about Walter Jon Williams?Report

              • Troublesome Frog in reply to Oscar Gordon says:

                I’ve been saying for years that if we insist on limiting the number of foreign technical workers with a special visa, we should just auction them off and allow resale on a secondary market and be done with it. That would take care of the problem of ensuring that we ration the slots for the most valuable foreign workers, and any systematic disparity in pay would be priced into the visa making games like the H-1B body shop unprofitable. We could do away with most of the crazy regulations we have to spend time failing to enforce.

                If we structured it correctly, we could even generate futures curves for them and estimate stuff about labor markets, which would be pretty cool.Report

      • LeeEsq in reply to Will Truman says:

        The surplus argument is unconvincing because you can have a surplus of anything. Law is much more practical than the fine or liberal arts but many people are having to deal with the downsides of many people deciding that law school was a relatively safe bet. There are many, many tales of J.D.s working in low paying service jobs and struggling to pay off law school debt. Pushing people into hot practical majors will also have the surplus effect and allow even bottom rung employers to have the pick of the litter. Everybody else would be screwed. It would be the law school crisis but with computer programing or engineering.Report

        • Will Truman in reply to LeeEsq says:

          You can have a surplus in everything, but there are some things that we have more cause to worry about than others. I find it every unlikely that we will ever have a shortage of people wanting to go into the arts. If I’m wrong and we do, then we confront it then.

          My take on law is similar. There is a glut in the market. We shouldn’t be worrying about sending more kids down that path, or why more kids aren’t going down that path.Report

  5. dhex says:

    a more accurate title for the essay would have been “meet the young adults who let their parents tell them what to study in college”.

    but yes, english (meaning lit, not necessarily comp or instructional) is declining as a major, in part due to perceptions of declining value and utility, a change in many places with how gen writing courses are handled, and the general retrenchment by the field into maximum obtuseness with minimum public outreach over the past 30 years.

    most critical frameworks, either by design or by decay/adaptation, are impenetrable – if not outright hostile – to outsiders. it’s part of the jam. it’s not designed for them, but rather for the group to use both in communications and, in some cases, as a political weapon against each other. with all of that energy directed at producing novelty for exterior recognition while keeping local political goals in mind (meaning interdepartmental or inter-collegiate), public outreach is going come in nearly last. and especially when you are only trained to speak to those who already understand – or at least fear – your rhetorical framework, basically everything most of them say is going to be complete nonsense.

    bell hooks is fun to listen to and all, but at least 75% (and i may be kind here) of what she says is outright gibberish to an audience which doesn’t already a) accept her premises and b) believe in the moral authority of the language she uses. it’s not a mindset designed to convince the public; it’s a mindset meant to train future generations.

    it would be helpful to have this reverse as a matter of personal selfishness – and as the article above indicates, it is somewhat cyclical occurance. most majors wax and wane in popularity. and english will likely continue to be a popular minor. but overall, i’d not bet on it ever retaining the levels of decades past…even the phd pipeline is starting to slow down.Report

    • Jaybird in reply to dhex says:

      “bell hooks is fun to listen to and all, but at least 75% (and i may be kind here) of what she says is outright gibberish to an audience which doesn’t already a) accept her premises and b) believe in the moral authority of the language she uses. it’s not a mindset designed to convince the public; it’s a mindset meant to train future generations.”

      Given that hooks is one of the FIRST authors I read on the topics she addresses (we’re talking sophomore year of high school, in a fairly backwards place that did not yet have internet and was 95 percent white), and that I found her both compelling and convincing, I have skepticism for your example.

      Even though I agree with your points overall.Report

      • Maribou in reply to Jaybird says:

        OK, I am sure no one will be surprised to know that was me and not Jaybird. Shoulda looked at those fields on the comment (it’s been months since he used my laptop!).Report

        • LeeEsq in reply to Maribou says:

          But were your thoughts in the general line of bell hook’s before you read her or did you not really think about these subjects at all?Report

          • Maribou in reply to LeeEsq says:

            I really did not think about them at all. Or almost at all. Seriously, it was a new area for me at the time I read her. Shortly after that I read Cornel West. Those two folks were my entry into the topic of racism (at least beyond “racism is bad”) as well as into African-American history and current struggles. I really Had Read Nothing on these topics and barely thought about it because I was a high school kid in a very rural very white very non-American area. (I had thought about feminism some, but not a whole lot, and inequality mostly because of reading Orwell at a young age.) I found their texts *first*, not after being indoctrinated. Their texts grabbed me, made me think about things differently, and made me prioritize learning more, when I had not been particularly interested enough to have thoughts before.Report

      • Jaybird in reply to Jaybird says:


      • dhex in reply to Jaybird says:

        you read bell hooks in high school? i’m stuck between “that’s kinda insane” and “that’s kinda neat”. if you’re reading bell hooks you had a teacher smuggling in some really specific stuff…it’d be like running into julius evola in history class.

        and the fact you were in high school is a point toward that it is rhetorically designed for “training the next generation”. ayn rand is also popular with high school sophomores.

        anyway, i think my point stands re: the general public. the general public does not know who bell hooks is, or even harold bloom, or the guy who wrote will of the world. and at this point i run out of publicly known lit critics…or advocates for the study of literature in general.Report

        • Maribou in reply to dhex says:

          @dhex – I read bell hooks in high school because I wanted to, not because it was assigned. I read her because I was reading whatever I felt like and her books were on the shelf at the public library – insofar as some librarian put them there, that’s all the “training” that went on.

          of course I also read Harold Bloom my freshman year of college, ALSO not because it was assigned, ALSO because I just found it on the shelves at the library.

          And while “the general public” may not know who people who write from an “English major”y point of view are, the general public of readers very much does. Azar Nafisi sold like hotcakes at the bookstore I used to manage, for example (as did bell hooks and Harold Bloom, for that matter)…Report

          • dhex in reply to Maribou says:

            my apologies for presuming it was an official part of your high school curriculum. i will admit to being both jealous of your youthful sense of adventure, and disappointed that it wasn’t actually part of the curriculum out wherever you grew up.

            And while “the general public” may not know who people who write from an “English major”y point of view are, the general public of readers very much does.

            sadly the parents – and, students, really…i’m not fond of this complete removal of agency that pearlstein is engaging in, though i understand its source – are the target who need to be convinced.

            and i would honestly quibble about the “general public of readers” bit…i would assume your bookstore crowd is probably more selective than most.

            i’m not really sure if you took 100 random people who have bought a book in the past three months (of any kind, e- or otherwise) that more than 20% of them would know who bell hooks is. and that’s possibly being kind. if you added “and name one book by her” you’d close that gap to closer to maybe 2 or 3 out of 100.

            i obviously share her jaundiced view of capitalization, however.

            thankfully my days of trying to sell people on an english major are over, so while this is a problem (in that it directly impacts my quality of my life) it is no longer a vocational issue. a kind of relief, even if it is only temporary and ultimately futile.Report

            • Aaron David in reply to dhex says:

              Bell Hooks had a minute or two of fame back in the ’90’s. And even the corporate bookstore I was managing back then in a backwater town with no SLAC around sold a few.Report

    • Saul Degraw in reply to dhex says:

      Julia Turner at Slate mentions not too infrequently that the critical frameworks in Intro Level English at Brown made her fled to the more conservative (in her words) History department. She seems to have wanted to been an English major for the most innocent and pure of reasons, she really likes to read and talk about novels.Report

    • Oscar Gordon in reply to dhex says:


      • Oscar Gordon in reply to Oscar Gordon says:

        Related to what dhex said, and it’s something I’ve said before, is that majors have to demonstrate their value. Learning all about English Lit is certainly a worthwhile, enriching, life fulfilling experience, but if it comes with a $50K price tag, mom and dad are perfectly within their rights to ask how it’s going to keep junior from living in their basement and expect a concrete answer (instead of abstract platitudes).

        STEM, Law, Medicine, Business all have concrete paths to a middle class or better career. Other majors have to make more effort to show similar concrete paths.Report

        • trizzlor in reply to Oscar Gordon says:

          >>STEM, Law, Medicine, Business all have concrete paths to a middle class or better career. Other majors have to make more effort to show similar concrete paths.

          As the article points, disparities between humanities and STEM aren’t all that high: humanities unemployment rates are 1-2% higher than STEM and the median pay is $50k vs $80k. I don’t think these differences are substantial enough to justify the image of the humanities as a path towards basement dwelling. What universities should make clear is how challenging it is to make a living specifically *within* your major/concentration. Someone majoring in political science, for example, needs to know that their options are (a) an extremely selective and demanding academic track; (b) some vanity positions based on family connections; (c) low pay + high instability NGO work; (d) NOT political science (accounting for >80% of the outcomes). Then they can decide if they either have the drive for (a-c) or they’re comfortable not building a career in their chosen major. But the dichotomy of job vs. basement is, in my opinion, not that useful.Report

          • Oscar Gordon in reply to trizzlor says:


            I agree with everything you said, and you make my point very well.

            I.E. If 80% of your grads have successful middle class or better careers, but not necessarily in the ideal position, then you have to make parents & students understand that, and show them how the major helps to prepare the student for that path.

            E.G. My wife has an MLIS from Madison. Her BA is in History. Her advisors were very clear that a BA in History is a great degree to get if you intend to go for a professional degree, but it’s is not a path to a job as a Historian. The LS program was also clear that there are more MLIS graduates than there are Public Librarian jobs, so they helped students think about how to make themselves attractive to other employers.

            If majors aren’t doing this, and still charging $50K for a degree, then they should be marginalized.Report

          • Oscar Gordon in reply to trizzlor says:


            I’ll add one concession – some schools are very good at being upfront with students regarding career prospects and offering excellent career counseling and preparation. But, much like the difference between my uncle & I[1], a student has to actually make use of said resources and have a realistic plan[2].

            [1] Both my uncle & I served in the Navy (he got out a few years before I went in). He spent the whole time skating by on the bare minimum and grousing about how he couldn’t succeed. He left after 4 years as an E-3 (Airman). I busted ass, took every training and class I could squeeze in, studied everything I could, and I was promoted to E-4 in 18 months (2 weeks later I got into the motorcycle wreck that ended my career, so I’m a retired E-4, but still).

            [2] E.G. If your plan is to get a BA in philosophy and somehow get a job teaching at a prestigious private academy – unless you have a significant networking advantage, that might not be a good plan. This hearkens back to your point about 80% not working directly in the field, I think schools and faculty should be blunt as a wrecking ball with advisees about their chances of leveraging their education directly into a career.Report

            • trizzlor in reply to Oscar Gordon says:

              Yeah, totally agree. And it benefits everyone involved. I had a lot of college friends who went through poli sci while having no idea what those relative percentages are like. They’re all securely middle class now, but in career paths that have nothing to do with political science. And as a consequence they have a lot of resentment at our alma mater and no intention of writing checks or promoting the school in any way.Report

            • I looked this up because I had no idea how to do the translation. In the more familiar (at least to me) Army ranks, PFC is E3 while corporal is E4.Report

              • Oscar Gordon in reply to Mike Schilling says:

                Navy enlisted ranks can throw people not only because they’re so different from the other 3 branches, but also because your job is part of your rank (E-3 can be Airman, Fireman, or Seaman , depending on if you work with aircraft, ship engineering, or somewhere else). E-4 is generally Petty Officer 3rd Class, but it’s also something like GSM3 (Gas Turbine Systems Technician Mechanical 3rd Class).

                Rakes a bit of getting used to.Report

  6. I realize Pearlstein may not have much control over the title for his piece, but I’ll start my comment by saying we don’t really meet the parents his title suggests we will. We instead get his caricature of the parents.

    Pearlstein at one point conflates two things. He’s conflating parents’ pressure on their children not to undertake majors in the humanities with the idea that majoring “choosing English or history as a major would doom them to lives as impecunious schoolteachers.” Maybe there’s a middle ground here. Maybe those parents have a mixture of motivations and not necessarily the extremely caricatured vision Pearlstein suggests.

    Later, Pearlstein notes that humanities majors declined “modestly” over the last 30 years and precipitously since the great recession. Presumably that means there are a lot fewer humanities graduates now. Yet when discussing their unemployment rates in ca. 2012, he shows they’re comparable with (though, incidentally, still higher than) those of non-humanities majors. If the number of humanities majors increased precipitously, say, to the pre-great recession numbers, would those numbers be higher?

    Pearlstein says

    For me, there’s nothing more depressing than meeting incoming freshmen at Mason who have declared themselves as accounting majors. They’re 18 years old, they haven’t had a chance to take a course in Shakespeare or evolutionary biology or the history of economic thought, and already they’ve decided to devote the rest of their lives to accountancy. It’s worth remembering that at American universities, the original rationale for majors was not to train students for careers. Rather, the idea was that after a period of broad intellectual exploration, a major was supposed to give students the experience of mastering one subject, in the process developing skills such as discipline, persistence, and how to research, analyze, communicate clearly and think logically.

    There’s an assumption here (based on the tenor of the rest of Pearlstein’s piece) that the incoming freshmen are all choosing “accountancy” because of pressure from their parents and not because they have decided for themselves it’s a good course of action. (Or perhaps it’s some combination of the two. The world is complicated.)

    If an incoming freshman declares any major at all, it doesn’t strike me as particularly fair to claim they have therefore “decided to devote the rest of their lives to” that major People change majors. Or they don’t. If an incoming freshman chooses, say, “history,” are we to bemoan their decision “to devote the rest of their lives” to the study of history? Maybe Pearlstein would be happy if all incoming freshman entered with undeclared majors. That’s a strategy. But as I found out as an undergrad, it’s more time consuming to enter with an undeclared major, and then having to get all the official signatures to adopt a major, than it is to declare a major and stick with it. Maybe that’s not how it should be, but majors, even for the humanities, have required “prologue” and capstone course, other required courses, and pre-reqs and those need to be known and taken in time in order to graduate within four or five years.

    And to the second part of Pearlstein’s paragraph. He seems to be assuming that the only way to develop “skills such as discipline, persistence, and how to research, analyze, communicate clearly and think logically” is to major in the humanities. I agree that studying the humanities and social sciences helps greatly (but is not sufficient and perhaps is not necessary to) cultivate those skills, but one needn’t major in those subjects to take those courses. Also–and I admit that Pearlstein doesn’t say this explicitly–there’s an undercurrent of “accountancy isn’t and cannot be a real discipline, isn’t intellectually rigorous.”

    Pearlstein implies that it–parents’ pressuring children not to major in the humanities–is worse now than ever. He quotes a couple of people to that effect. He should not be so quick to say so. My anecdata aren’t data any more than Pearlstein’s anecdata are, but I recall, in the mid-1990s, knowing a lot of fellow undergrads whose parents put them under pressure not to major in humanities. I remember going to one of those “so you want to go to college” night meetings at my high school. A representative from one college criticized the phenomenon of someone majoring in engineering for his dad and in something else (let’s say, literature) for himself. That was 1991 or 1992.

    All that said….Pearlstein is addressing a real problem. I’m a believer in the humanities. And despite my frequent invocations of “college isn’t for everybody” (an invocation I now retract and apologize for because I realize the inherent strawmannery of suggesting others believe college is for everybody), I believe the best way to promote the humanities is to rein in college costs and enable more people to attend. If it costs less to major in humanities, more people might take the risk. Those of us in the humanities should beware of the promises we make. The more pure one’s search for knowledge, the less one gets from mammon. (I posit that as a general rule, not an iron law, by the way). If we promise success in those fields that supposedly require demonstrated critical thinking, then we should at least provide the tools and advice to help get one’s foot in the door.Report

  7. Rufus F. says:

    Something I learned the other day is that the tribes that worshiped Moloch supposedly did so by sacrificing their children in fire. Supposedly, when Carthage was finally destroyed, the Roman soldiers found the charred bones of children in small pots as the practice had continued there. But the Biblical passages also talk about children “passing through the fire unto Moloch”.

    At any rate, Carthage must be destroyed.Report

    • Asimov has an interesting take on this in his story The Dead Past. Its main character is a professor of ancient history who’s trying to prove that these were slanders created by the Romans to justify their total destruction of Carthage. But since his own daughter died in a house fire that he’s never been entirely sure he didn’t somehow cause, it’s quite possible that he’s subconsciously trying to absolve himself.Report

    • LeeEsq in reply to Rufus F. says:

      Moloch is used as something that requires supreme sacrifice as a reason.Report

    • Saul Degraw in reply to Rufus F. says:


      I thought that the general scholarship and archeology showed that child sacrifices to Moloch never happened. I.e. Rome used the child sacrifices as propaganda and prefix for why Carthage Must Be Destroyed rather than it actually being the reason why Carthage Much Be Destroyed.

      • Morat20 in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        Maybe not to Moloch but:

        The remains include the bodies of both very young children and small animals, and those who argue in favor of child sacrifice have argued that if the animals were sacrificed, then so too were the children.[16] The area covered by the Tophet in Carthage was probably over an acre and a half by the fourth century BCE,[17] with nine different levels of burials. About 20,000 urns were deposited between 400 BCE and 200 BCE,[17] with the practice continuing until the early years of the Christian period. The urns contained the charred bones of newborns and in some cases the bones of fetuses and 2-year-olds. These double remains have been interpreted to mean that in the cases of stillborn babies, the parents would sacrifice their youngest child.[18]

        There is a clear correlation between the frequency of deposition of child remains and the well-being of the city.[further explanation needed] In bad times (war, poor harvests) sacrifices may have become more frequent, indicating an increased assiduousness in seeking divine appeasement or possibly a population-controlling response to the reduction of available food[9] or perhaps increased child mortality from famine or disease.

        A detailed breakdown of the age of the buried children includes pre-natal individuals, stillbirths. It is also argued that the age distribution of remains at this site is consistent with the burial of children who died of natural causes, shortly before or after birth.[16][19] Sergio Ribichini has argued that the Tophet was “a child necropolis designed to receive the remains of infants who had died prematurely of sickness or other natural causes, and who for this reason were “offered” to specific deities and buried in a place different from the one reserved for the ordinary dead”. He adds that this was probably part of “an effort to ensure the benevolent protection of the same deities for the survivors.”[20] However, that analysis is disputed; Patricia Smith and colleagues from the Hebrew University and Harvard University show from the teeth and skeletal analysis at the Carthage Tophet that infant ages at death (about two months) do not correlate with the expected ages of natural mortality (perinatal).[21]


        • Richard Hershberger in reply to Morat20 says:

          As it happens, I am currently reading a history of Carthage, “Carthage Must Be Destroyed” by Richard Miles. His take was the child sacrifice wasn’t a routine thing, but it lingered in the culture, to be brought out in times of stress.Report

      • Rufus F. in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        Okay, well, then let’s say Allen Ginsberg’s version of Moloch needs to be destroyed.Report

  8. Kazzy says:

    My mom argued against me studying education despite (or because?) her being a teacher.

    She refused to let me play organized football.

    She frowned upon certain friends, some of whom turned out to be shitty and some who did not.

    In some cases I listened and in some I didn’t. Isn’t this how it goes? Parents push on behalf of what they think is “best for” their children and children accept or reject or somewhere inbeween the advice?

    What makes this any different?Report

    • Richard Hershberger in reply to Kazzy says:

      Well, not letting you play football is just good sense. My father went to college on a football scholarship, and so was in a position to know. He didn’t prohibit me or my brothers from playing football, but he certainly didn’t encourage it. I was a big kid, and so was approached by the coach. Dad was happy that I wasn’t interested.

      In related news, Dad had dementia late in his life. We can’t say that this was related to taking blows to the head decades earlier, but we do wonder. If I had boys, I absolutely would refuse to let them play football.Report

  9. trizzlor says:

    I’ve never understood parents who worry about this kind of stuff with their college-bound kid. Do they remember what college was like? If I think back to my freshman dorm, the vast majority of students spent their non-class time (1) getting wasted or dealing with the consequences, (2) playing video games, (3) getting laid or dealing with the consequences, and (4) non-specific loafing. The biggest determinant of whether my former classmates are thriving now (based on an informal scan of Facebook) is whether they were able to break out of this pattern. The hippies that were setting up a tent city are happy now, and so are the college Republicans who were organizing Ann Coulter reading groups. If anything, it’s the bro-grammers who were mapping their classes around thirsty Thursdays that are in a rut.Report

    • Stillwater in reply to trizzlor says:

      If I think back to my freshman dorm, the vast majority of students spent their non-class time

      In this thread, the non-class time isn’t what parents are worried about.Report

      • trizzlor in reply to Stillwater says:

        Which is what I can’t wrap my head around. This stuff doesn’t matter. Things like whether your kid gets a fake ID or has a roommate with an Xbox will have a much bigger impact on their life than whether they decide to take inter-sectional feminism instead of Actuarial Sciences 101. Undergrad is not about what content they’re getting, it’s about (1) learning how to learn and (2) applying that to some self-enriching activity in a driven way. The impact of learning these skills so far outweighs the subject matter that they are learned *in* it’s like fretting about what kind of decal you’re going to put on your rocket to the moon.Report

        • Stillwater in reply to trizzlor says:

          Sure. And then the obligatory “yeabut”….

          … if parents don’t like the content being conveyed, they have an actual complaint, one distinct from additional complaints about drug use and sexual promiscuity and so on. If your argument is that these (conservative) parents are simply mistaken in their priorities, then so be it: at least you’d be acknowledging that the complaint isn’t illegitimate.

          Personally, I’ll never defend teaching post-moderinist theories except as a future study of historical lessons learned from our current intellectual mistakes. But we aren’t there yet.Report

          • greginak in reply to Stillwater says:

            Has anybody said conservative parents can’t have the complaints they want to have??? People can have legitimate concerns that are based on stereotypes and cartoonish lies. Every bodies concerns are legitimate, doesn’t mean they are based in the realistic portrayals compared with Rushite stories.Report

            • Stillwater in reply to greginak says:

              People can have legitimate concerns that are based on stereotypes and cartoonish lies.

              Well, no they can’t, at least from the pov of rational justification. A concern based on a cartoonish lie wouldn’t be legitimate, seems to me. I think you’d agree with that, yes?

              I’m not sure what you’re arguing here, greg. Are they legitimate or not? Surely we can all arrive at different conclusions given the context of the word “legitimately”: eg., politically, partisanly, self-interestedly, objectively, reasonably, pragmatically? etc etc.Report

              • greginak in reply to Stillwater says:

                How about this. There is no such thing as a legitimate or illegitimate concern. There are concerns that are based things that actually exist in the world and things that don’t’ really exist and of course gradients in between. I forget who raised the issue of legitimacy, but i’m actually not sure how it matters. Alex Jones as concerns and he has a Right to them. He’s also nuts, but that is just my opinion.

                If conservative parents are worried about Jay’s mythical grievance studies teachers then they have the freedom to worry about it all they want. That doesn’t mean i have to take “grievance studies” or whatever as a real world concern.

                Me thinks worrying about legitimacy just gets in the way. People with schizophrenia are often very worried about their various hallucinations. Well those don’t’ exist in the outside world but their fears are pretty durn legitimate.Report

              • Stillwater in reply to greginak says:

                If conservative parents are worried about Jay’s mythical grievance studies teachers…

                Greg, I actually agree with JayB, or those parents, or whatever. I’ve already written that I don’t think it’s mythical. It’s a real effect, one resulting from certain ideologies academia promotes,particularly in the social sciences/liberal arts generally.Report

              • greginak in reply to Stillwater says:

                Okay. If people are terrified their children will be brainwashed by that kind of stuff then they are free to be that way. Sounds much more hysterical conservative fear mongering to me AND I agree lots of post modern/etc stuff is crap.

                I’ve never really seen SW NE State Tech U’s sociology program as the soft underbelly of the country and the siren dragging children to post modern hell. Maybe i’m being flip but then again …”grievance studies” and such.Report

              • Stillwater in reply to greginak says:

                Given that you think it’s crap, would you tell your kids to not take those types of courses?

                If so we’re back to square one yeah?Report

              • greginak in reply to Stillwater says:

                I’d be fine with kids taking all sorts of courses even ones that involved post modernism. They might learn some of the good parts of it and they can also learn about the mistakes that have been made. You don’t’ learn to think just be hearing all the good and true and correct things. If you want to be a scientist i would really hope you would take some history of science courses and learn about all the mistaken ideas and methods that were made. In my observation good scientists often learn about good and bad methods so they can tell the different and know why the good way is the good way.Report

          • El Muneco in reply to Stillwater says:

            I understand the hostility to PM, if not the vehemence. Admittedly, I went through college just a bit too soon for it to be fully entrenched, but it seems to me that PM is a lot like Marxism. There is a kernel of legitimately good ideas, the originators ran a bit too far with the ball before realizing their own limitations, true believers are applying it in contexts it’s manifestly unsuited to, and neither the biggest supporters nor the biggest critics have actually read the original source material.Report

          • trizzlor in reply to Stillwater says:

            Look, if the discussion is “ideas that I wouldn’t want my child to embrace” then I’m sure we have a lot of common ground. I would certainly be mortified if my daughter grew up to be that Yale student yelling at Christakis about not being comforted. But if the discussion is “how do I help my child be happy and productive post-college” then, in my view, choice of major has zero relevance there. Parents who throw a fit over choice of major are informative on the issue only as red flags for what not to do. That angry Yale student is going to do just fine; she’s driven, passionate, and engaged outside of the classroom. All she needs is some more perspective. It’s the STEM kid that spends his free time practicing beer shotgunning skills that I’m worried about.Report

  10. Chip Daniels says:


    The stakes have been raised over the last decade

    Hey, yeah, why is that?
    Isn’t this the exact opposite if what was supposed to happen?
    That technology and global commerce was supposed to allow our children to work 30 hours a week and spend their free time studying philosophy while marveling at their abundance?

    How come no Boomer ever made the prediction in the 1970s that in thirty years their children would graduate from college with debt equal to the cost of a house, and face a mad scramble to land a job where they were expected to work 50 hours a week for free the first few years?

    Not really a question at you so much as a general observation that in all the disputes over what Kid Should Study, there seems to be a unquestioned acceptance of the world we live in.Report

    • Aaron David in reply to Chip Daniels says:

      I would say that most of those people hadn’t really figured out that college/university is a positional good at that point @chip-daniels.

      Which is why we are worried about the possibility that a parent could be freaking out that the kid is taking Lit. or freaking out that the kid isn’t taking Lit. They are all just worries about the nature of the positional good. And if it is still positional.Report

  11. DensityDuck says:

    People send their kids to college because they hear from so, so many places about how “a college degree means 50% higher salary and 500% higher lifetime earnings and 5000% less likelihood that you will have to sell your internal organs to a billionaire”. And people who send their kids to college for that reason want to see a return on their investment.

    And, as I’ve said elsewhere, maybe you reply “but college should be about learning how to learn and broadening your perceptions and intellectual experience“, and I can say “hey that’s great but is it really worth two hundred and fifty thousand dollars?”Report

    • trizzlor in reply to DensityDuck says:

      >>And, as I’ve said elsewhere, maybe you reply “but college should be about learning how to learn and broadening your perceptions and intellectual experience“, and I can say “hey that’s great but is it really worth two hundred and fifty thousand dollars?”

      Well, the whole question is what’s the root cause. Are college grads doing well because they have developed soft, general earning skills or because they’ve learned a specific set of techniques? As the article indicates, income/unemployment differences between majors are not dramatic, and wealthiest people are just as likely to be humanities graduates as STEM, so major doesn’t seem to be a variable that’s particularly predictive. In my opinion, the kind of soft intellectual environment you can get in college is unparalleled by anything else I’ve experienced since then. I can think of no other time in which you’re challenged with so many new ways of thinking. Whereas there are actually plenty of opportunities to pick up hard skills post-college, especially with the explosion of on-line learning.Report

      • Aaron David in reply to trizzlor says:

        I think the online learning part is generational, as at 45 that was not an option for me and my generation, let alone my parents (pre-boomers.) What was very true for my generation was the idea of Just Get A Degree, Any Degree. In other words, what seems to be important (degree in X) really isn’t as much as we thought, it was really the soft skills that were obtained in the process. But, looking back at it, maybe it wasn’t the soft skills, but rather the signifier of being middle class acceptable. Knowing how to dress for an interview, who to say hello to first, etc. And as we are moving to an era of even greater percentage of college grads, those previous markers aren’t cutting it anymore. Now you have to actually know something.Report

      • DensityDuck in reply to trizzlor says:

        “In my opinion, the kind of soft intellectual environment you can get in college is unparalleled by anything else I’ve experienced since then. I can think of no other time in which you’re challenged with so many new ways of thinking. ”

        Well, but there it is. The people who want their kids to go to college so they can work at Google aren’t interested in a soft intellectual environment that’s unparalleled for challenging you with so many new ways of thinking, they’re interested in “will my kid know how to write code in Java”.Report

        • Jaybird in reply to DensityDuck says:

          In the 90’s, I knew a handful of college drop-outs who got six-figure jobs because they were coding geniuses. They talked about their initial job interviews that involved them doing such things as writing a quick program that would do such and such (count to 100, replace all numbers that were multiples of 3 with foo, all numbers that were multiples of 5 with bar, and all numbers that were multiples of both with foobar is the example that sticks in my head to this day) and their follow-up job interviews writing stuff that actually needed to compile.

          Degrees in coding were what people who couldn’t code had.Report

        • Oscar Gordon in reply to DensityDuck says:

          If you are sending your kid to University to learn how to write Java for Google, you are:

          A) Wasting your money, &
          B) Doing it wrong.

          These parents who don’t want their kids to study a core Liberal Arts major have, IMHO, 3 reasons for the attitude:

          1) Return on Investment
          2) Progressive Indoc
          3) Other Value Considerations

          Any one, or combination thereof, may be at play. Personally, 1 strikes me as the biggest reason. If a parent can’t see a path from major to career, the ROI is questionable. As others have said, the more well positioned and wealthy a family is, the more likely they are to not care what the kids study, as they know how almost any degree can be leveraged into a career. So 1 is probably going to be the parents of kids who are the first, maybe second, generation to go to college.

          If a family is well positioned, then 2 starts coming into play, and I hardly think this is limited to the strongly conservative set. Any parent who is to the right of whatever politics they saw on the the news recently is subject to this. The best defense against 2 is to raise up kids who constantly question authority in a constructive way, and know how to filter personal opinions from information that has been more thoroughly winnowed by exposure to reality. I had plenty of rabidly idealistic professors when I was fulfilling my breadth requirements, and while it was sometimes a challenge to sort out idealistic opinions from more objective information, I knew going in that I was going to find both mixed together (even in my science heavy classes).

          As for 3, that is going to be very personal. Parents who are doctors, or lawyers, or scientists, may want their kids to at least try to follow in their footsteps, or they are concerned with some manner of signalling, etc.Report

          • Aaron David in reply to Oscar Gordon says:

            “If you are sending your kid to University to learn how to write Java for Google, you are:

            A) Wasting your money, &
            B) Doing it wrong.”

            You are assuming with the first gen student parents that they have any idea on how to learn coding so as to be a google prospect. More likely that little Katrinkas parents saw here with the iPad everyday playing minecraft and thought “this is what she will do, no distractions for her.”Report

  12. Oscar Gordon says:

    Related as topical to education and English

    Stuck at Square OneReport