David Brooks and The Big Shaggy

A couple of days ago, David Brooks wrote a passionate column about the importance of a liberal arts education. As students face a horrendous job market, they are increasingly majoring in practical majors — business, economics, and technology — and staying away from majors that don't seem to lead directly to a career plan. What does one do with a history or a philosophy major? God knows that we don't want them going on for a PhD.

Brooks writes, "There already has been a nearly 50 percent drop in the portion of
liberal arts majors over the past generation, and that trend is bound
to accelerate. Once the stars of university life, humanities now play
bit roles when prospective students take their college tours. The labs
are more glamorous than the libraries."

However, history majors have certain advantages over the practical majors. Brooks explains that you learn how to write effective business documents and to use language to build a brand. A knowledge of history also gives you a certain perspective on life. It gives us perspective on the irrational, on word-less beauty, and on human frailties.

Yes to everything he said.

When it became distressingly obvious that Steve's history PhD wasn't going to land him a job, he applied for a job with a temp agency in Manhattan. His first assignment was at an investment bank. He was an administrative assistant assigned to answering phones and filling out basic paperwork. He was hired permanently a few months later, and he's been promoted many times over the years. He's a vice-president now, and will hopefully move up another level in the next year or so.

Steve works in the documents division. He negotiates the contracts and makes sure that stock brokers fill out the proper paperwork in order to trade properly. His clients are the state of New Mexico and major corporations, not Grandma who wants to buy a couple of bonds. It's a very intense job with quite a bit of responsibility. Most of his colleagues have law or business degrees.

While Steve had to learn about the stock market and money stuff on the job, he already had quite a few skills that have served him well in the past ten years. He knew how to write. He knew how to research information. He was able to work independently. He did have to unlearn "professorial speak;" he had to stop pontificating in business meetings and he had to stop using words like "the petite bourgeoisie" on the trading floor.

Aside from the practical benefits, Steve's history background gives him a lot of joy. He reads history tomes on the bus ride into the city and he tells Jonah about how the rifle helped transform American history.

I used to teach Introduction to Political Theory every semester, in addition to other political science classes. The students and I would go through Pericles, Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Marx and all the dead dudes (and a few dead chicks). It was always a packed class. Thirty kids in a stuffy room. Most of the students were there, because it was a requirement for the political science major. They hadn't read any of that material before.

They loved it. They ate it up on toast.

After we read Pericles funeral oration, I had them imagine how a modern leader could rework the structure and the themes of his speech. Then we talked about Socrates. They loved that cantankerous old dude who walked up to strangers and asked them, “… aren’t you ashamed to be only concerned with making money and give no
thought about truth and perfecting your soul?" I asked them what they would think if a stranger went up to them while they were waiting in line in Starbucks and told them to think about truth and philosophy and not money. Lots of laughter and discussion.

I understand that students today have to be practical. We've certainly had to go the practical route ourselves in order to provide for the kids. However, I hope that in the rush to do the practical thing that we still make time to do do the fun thing — read history books on the bus and to take the class that lets us imagine a crazy old dude in Starbucks.

18 thoughts on “David Brooks and The Big Shaggy

  1. I asked them what they would think if a stranger went up to them while they were waiting in line in Starbucks and told them to think about truth and philosophy and not money.
    My favorite coffee shop game is to look around decide which other customer is most likely to be Trotsky 2.0.


  2. I love hearing about the lives people have fashioned for themselves when things did not go exactly to plan, especially the part where knowledge can give people joy, even when it’s not directly related to the work for which they are paid.
    I think in the rush to warn people about the risks of student loans and Ph.Ds, we shouldn’t throw out all the joy along with legitimate concerns about the risk. And, we shouldn’t romanticize the lack of risk in other fields (my pet peeve), suggesting that there is a risk free path. This is especially true for undergraduate degrees, where majoring in history certainly doesn’t make you less viable for law school than majoring in “pre-law” whatever that might be. And majoring in engineering or statistics or computer science is soul-stealing option for those who find joy in Pericles and not integrals.


  3. Wonderfully said, Laura; a really nice and wisely balanced statement. I’m going to save this and use it in a packet of stuff I give my freshman seminar students, when I tell them both about the risks and false expectations often associated with studying the liberal arts, as well as the joys and possibilities contained therein.


  4. I do wish Brooks hadn’t used a metaphor (or example? I didn’t really get it) that made him sound as if he’d eaten too many Scooby Snacks before he wrote. Either that, or he was trying to subtly undermine his point by making it sound dumb.


  5. My story appears to be similar to Steve’s, except that I was a little ahead of the curve into unemployment in that after I got my English degree, I was accepted into a PhD program in the liberal arts at NYU, but then requested a year deferment, and then finally elected not to go. (Apparently, one of the smartest decisions I ever made, although at the time, who knew?)
    During that year I also applied for jobs at temp agencies (in Philadelphia) and was placed as an administrative assistant. Except that, despite good recommendations and referrals, I was never hired full-time, and went through a series of temp job for a month or two, before finally taking the LSAT and going to law school. For me, it was a fine job path, although not the one I was planning when I declared my major.
    Steve (and I) are the exceptions, though. If you look at any chart of “salary by major,” the English and History majors earn half of what the business and economics majors make.
    I wouldn’t trade my liberal arts degree for anything, but I also wouldn’t make recommendations to others based on anecdotes of the relatively few who got liberal arts degrees and then outearned (or equaled the earnings of) the business majors.


  6. That link might not be the most accurate salary survey ever. For one thing, I’m guessing that the average zoologist does not have a starting salary of $296,673.


  7. That link might not be the most accurate salary survey ever. For one thing, I’m guessing that the average zoologist does not have a starting salary of $296,673.
    But what if the giraffe has a sore throat! That can get expensive!
    Just the first Google Hit for “starting salary by major.”
    This one has a long “methodology” page, which I didn’t read, but is probably better just based on the fact that it has a “methodology” page. And the relevant numbers are comparable.


  8. Just the first Google Hit for “starting salary by major.”
    I’d rather just have a brief day dream about taking care of monkeys and moving into a bigger house.


  9. Amen. Although I was an econ major, I find that the educational attainment that brings me the most pleasure, 30 years on, is the ability to read Greek and Latin.
    Every Sunday, I try to read that week’s lesson (when it is from the New Testament) in the original.


  10. I don’t know if it is because I’ve moved east or something, but I’m hearing much more Latin at mass than I did when I was a kid.


  11. I asked them what they would think if a stranger went up to them while they were waiting in line in Starbucks and told them to think about truth and philosophy and not money.
    Heh. I had a stranger like that back about a hundred years ago when I was going to community college. I saw him frequently; sometimes when I was out walking, sometimes on the bus. He was an elderly philosopher. He started talking to me when…oh hell, which book was it that I was carrying….Camus? Kerouac? Sisterhood is Powerful? Whatever. Before he saw me carrying books, he never spoke to me. Interesting old fella.
    Anyway. I want to agree with you, but the trajectory that worked for your husband just isn’t going to work for most people—especially most women. If Steve had been Stephanie…well, zie’d still have that admin assistant position. From my observation, women need more than a bachelor’s degree to get by in the executive world—an MBA or law degree is needed to get the same opportunity that men get for a BS or BA.


  12. Young relative (the one who just dropped out of medical school) has just figured out that she will be able to pay off her loan over 5 years if she pays $900 a month (the standard payment is $700ish). Young relative’s summer job will pay about $1100 a month, but her boss (another relative) will let her camp for free, and young relative will probably get a couple free meals a day, working in the kitchen. Oh, and the other thing is that young relative’s loans mysteriously grew after she left school and is now something like $68k. They’re like the Blob or something.
    I don’t regret my soft majors (journalism and Russian) at all, but I had only $6k in student loans from my undergrad in the 90s, and none at all for graduate. The payments were about $65 a month, but what with all my deferments (Peace Corps, graduate, etc.) and not getting aggressive with them until very recently, I only managed to pay off Sallie Mae after about 13 years. Multiply that loan payment by ten, and I would still be singing the blues and there are all sorts of important choices I would not have been able to make. There’s a lot less time to ponder the good, the true and the beautiful when you have to scrape up an extra $650 a month.
    While I’m thinking of it, it’s really goofy to talk about Socrates in the context of justifying paying big bucks for a humanities education. The thing that made Socrates unusual in his day is that his instruction was free (and a lot of people that got it would rather not have had it). His competitors ran philosophical schools and charged big bucks, and we call them the Sophists. (Although, to be fair, Plato and Aristotle also taught more formally.)
    My family would be very much inconvenienced if my husband’s college moved to a Socratic no-fee, no-salary model, but I think it is time for a conversation about how much formal instruction is necessary. More and more education is just floating around free, for anybody with a fast internet connection to pull in. I think there is no replacement for a really dedicated composition teacher and the rhythm of paper deadlines to whip sloppy writers into shape (and I think I’m probably overdue for a return visit to composition boot camp myself) and that is true of a number of other areas (foreign language instruction, for instance), but a lot of other classroom experiences are becoming anachronisms. Why should 200 people sit in a room at a particular time and listen to a poorly prepared lecture?


  13. May I just chime in with an appreciation of this blog and its commenters? The same Brooks column spawned a similar thread over at Historiann, but that one left me thinking that a humanities major is primarily useful for writing defensive rationalizations. You folks rock.


  14. My Father, a WWII vet and himself a professor at a liberal arts college, used to explain to me about the way in which the business world valued a liberal arts education by jokingly saying that prospective employers, when interviewing liberal arts majors/graduates would say: “O.K., speak to me in French if you must, but can you make me a buck!” LOL!!


  15. The thing that made Socrates unusual in his day is that his instruction was free (and a lot of people that got it would rather not have had it).
    That makes Socrates the forerunner of today’s public service announcement. Or, since he asked for a public stipend (instead of a death sentence), a public school teacher with a very bad union rep.


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