Confining American Education – a STEM cell?

Via Instapundit comes the tragic lament of "Rebecca Chapman, who has a master of arts in English and comparative literature from Columbia University" and who "hit bottom professionally last summer when she could not even get a job that did not pay."  In the company of "Willie Osterweil, 25, an aspiring novelist who graduated magna cum laude from Cornell in 2009," and "Rachel Rosenfelt, 26, who graduated from Barnard College in 2009," and other like-minded young'uns, she formed an echo chamber for the palaver of "overeducated, underemployed postgrads willing to work free to be heard on subjects like Kanye West’s effect on the proletarian meta-narrative of hip-hop."

This meditation on optimism from the NYTimes comes on the heels of widespread mockery from rightward pundits of poor, dream-chasing Joe Therrien, who only wanted to be a puppeteer and is now regarded in some quarters as a misfit toy. (Note, though, that Michael Barone, a man of dexter sentiment, defends Therrien, noting that "he presumably felt that he could be a good enough puppeteer to make a living at it and could find a job doing so. That’s the sort of thing the late Steve Jobs told Stanford graduates that they ought to do." The Anchoress also has a thing or two to say in defense of pursuing puppetry, if not paper.

The broad cultural question at stake is whether China has the right idea: to phase out majors and programs that consistently produce graduates who prove unemployable on the basis of their education.

The issue, as always, is the legitimacy and scope of state subsidization. What stake does the government have, in behalf of its citizens, in perpetuating the production of puppeteers (taken as a proxy for the entire class of overrepresented, underemployable domains of interest)?

It's by no means a new theme. Roll back a hundred thirty-odd years, and you'll find Thomas Henry Huxley and Matthew Arnold arguing against and for the humanities with greater eloquence and insight than any of today's pundits. Later, Dewey wanted to regress toward the mean for the sake of making or half-baking a compliant, progressive workforce. His ideas still prompt controversy among Arnoldites, even if Huxleyites and cynics regard the issue as moot.

Do we want to be pragmatic above all else? Is it unwise for the ideal to temper the real? Folks who discern that they're puppeteers or poets, calligraphers or critics, artisans or artists, shouldn't bear blame and suffer disdain for rolling the dice on their dreams. They only merit mockery when, failing, they whine about how their society's public policies didn't long indulge them.

The pursuit of a culture of literary salons is not a path orthogonal to hard-nosed capitalism; when successful, it's a symptom or index of thriving capitalism. And although taking the risk when times are lean may be ill advised, the humanistic goal of chasing a cultural dream isn't inherently wrong or risible. To the contrary, the humanistic goal is the point not only of the risk, but of capitalism itself, rightly construed.

Last 5 posts by David Byron


  1. says

    I took as many pot-shots at the puppeteer as anyone.

    But ordered liberty and cold, hard capitalism are products of a cultural history of interest in humanities — of a history of exploring ideas. Is federal subsidy of comp-lit majors necessary to the continuing vitality of Western liberty and democracy? Perhaps not — but I'm not prepared to conclude that there is no relation at all between them.

  2. says

    I generally agree with Ken on this. But that still leaves the questions of "Who pays?" and "Who accepts and benefits/loses from the risk?"

    A striving artist need not accrue massive debt in building a career. And MFA or PhD in Art or Art History does not have significant linkage to successful artistry. Those degrees may serve as networking tools to build a coterie of like-minded individuals, but those individuals are not the ones forking out the big bucks that make an artist successful. There is something else, something ineffable, that required to become a successful artist. It might be talent, it might even be luck, but it's not something taught in a grad program.

    I'm all for people learning things for the sake of learning things. I think it is probably better for society that people know lots of different things. I'm not so sure that I should be paying for everyone's privilege/pleasure of learning for the sake of learning, though. The point of diminishing returns seems to come quickly in this kind of education, at least diminishing returns for society.

    Does that mean only 'rich kids', those who can afford the education can become artists? No, I don't think so. I'll grant that the marketplace of certain kinds of fiction writing seem to be occupied by networked writers all lauding fellow network members' work. But then we get to the question of how to define 'success'.

    Is it critical acclaim that makes for successful artists (of any stripe) or is it the marketability of the art they produce? There seems to be a wide spread in the academic achievements of artists, from HS dropouts to PhDs or LLDs. Is there any real causation between academic credentials and artistic success? I don't think so.

    Art is a high risk venture. Deciding to become an artist is and has been throughout history one of the riskiest things imaginable. Why, then, do modern Art grads assume that they're going to win the lottery?

  3. C. S. P. Schofield says

    As easy as it is to make fun of the dim bulbs who took out loans to get degrees of questionable utility, the problem lies with the Institutions of Higher Learning that sold them those degrees. There are notable exceptions in the hard sciences and the engineering disciplines, but what the vast majority of degrees qualify you to do is get the next degree, and teach the previous one (for a pittance). My problem with the erstwhile puppeteer is not that he's out protesting the worthlessness of his sheepskin. It's that it STILL hasn't occurred to him that he should be protesting it by going all punch-and-judy on his Professor(s). Or, better still, by using his certificate to wipe his backside, hitchhiking to Los Angeles, and offering to fetch coffee and sweep floors for the jim Henson Studio if they'll let him hang around and learn.

  4. says

    Personally, the requirements of universities that students take a certain number of certain kinds of classes is one I find to be moronic.

    I want to write computer code. I don't give a single ounce of fuck about "women's right in early colonial america" or any of the other bullshit on the "Humanities" list.

    I hate people. Why are they making me spend more time around them in classes that only annoy me further. I assume you, my disdain for humanity isn't going to be cured by studying music's affect on the civil right's movement.

  5. Will says

    @Scott Jacobs 1 year out of my 4 year comp sci degree was spent in arts courses. The official policy was 30 credit hours had to be outside computer science/math/stats.

    You need some arts courses so people can brush up on their writing and communication skills, but 1/4 years is a bit much.

  6. says

    I want to code because I hate talking to PEOPLE. Why would I need to refine my skills at talking to people when my entire goal in life is to minimize such events from occurring?

  7. VRaverna says

    Scott Jacobs, that is because to be successful in almost any field, you need to be able to communicate effectively.

  8. C.S.P. Schofielc says


    The better you are at communicating effectively in writen and spoken language, the less you will have to do it, because you will have to repeat and explain less. Sadly, i see no convincing evidence that any modern college will be able to teach you.

  9. says

    Fine. I'll consent to a single writing course.

    And the Comm 101 class is right out.

    Now, can you explain why I have to take humanities and social sciences? :)

  10. PLW says

    Scott. You don't. Go get one of however many certifications get passed out by folks like Microsoft/Cisco/etc..

    But if you want a college degree, it requires a certain amount of breadth, so it sends a slightly different signal. Like either having broad interests or an ability to put up with stuff you don't like. It also may indicated that you've actually learned some of those things (depending on where you get it).

    The idea that you have to take something like “women’s right in early colonial america” is silly. If you can't find a single humanities course that interests you enough to solider through, I as a potential employer would worry that you would be either too stupid to hire, boring as hell, or a big time pain in the ass.

  11. C.S.P. Schofield says


    I assume that if you can learn programming language, you can learn english … If you can find somebody interested in teaching it. The problem is that far too many English instructors (Profs and TAs alike) are more intersted in deconstructing English than in teaching it.

    The danger you face is that as a Tech it is easy to fall into te habit of using a jargon of all the hot buzzwords and phrases. I know this because, while I am not a Tech I did marry one. We got involved in a Tech start-up, and I was the technical editor because I was willing to tell the Tech leads that to qualify as english, a sentence really needs a verb.

    The clearer your english (just like programming languages) the less chance there is that you will end up having to translate for some goddamned hamster in Marketing.

  12. says

    Okay, I'll out myself: I'm an aspiring novelist and poet, much in the vein of many of the people mentioned in this post. I went to an expensive private school, even going on to work on a Masters Degree. In doing so I took on quite a lot of debt.

    So I did the only sensible thing an aspiring novelist could do: I majored in computer science.

    I have a good job, no problem paying back my loans, took plenty of non-tech courses in college (indeed my university required us to do so). I'm now working a day job and writing evenings and weekends. I don't feel that majoring in CS hurt me or my art one wit. In fact I think it helped both quite a bit.

    All of this is in the service of saying that people who wish to pursue the arts or the humanities needn't major in them in college to do so. This makes the question of "who pays" much more pressing. If college is not required to pursue unprofitable ends, and if the tax payer may ultimately be on the hook for student loans, I think there's a strong argument to be made that IF we are going to pay for school, we ought at least make government loans contingent on the choosing a historically profitable major.

  13. GeekChick says

    What's with the crack against calligraphers? I've actually made money at calligraphy–as a teen I had half-baked idea of becoming a comic book letterer; that was before computer typesetting though so I'm glad I went into Electrical Engineering instead. What these twerps need to realize is that being a professional artist and a professional sports player have a lot in common: lots of people play but only one in a million can play well enough to be paid for it.

  14. says

    Chill. I'm pro-calligraphy. Indeed, I'm pro- all that stuff. Just last night, I was explaning to my students that the calligraphic line of a frond in The Shrike, a painting by Miyamoto Musashi, is at least as badass as the fact that he slaughtered over five dozen dueling opponents with his frond-like katana– undoubtedly a Hattori Hanzo.

    No wonder Louis XIV feared the Fronde!

    Anyhow, I studied art history and went into software development so… yeah.

  15. CTrees says

    @David: Though slightly less badass than killing one of his big rivals with an oar, while the rival was using an actual sword. However, some of the things in The Book of Five Rings? My god, that man knew how to turn a badass phrase better than Teddy Roosevelt.

  16. says

    @CTrees Book of Five Rings is wonderful in its way, and although it doesn't receive the press of, say, The Art of War, its lessons are deeper.

  17. says


    But ordered liberty and cold, hard capitalism are products of a cultural history of interest in humanities

    No doubt the theoretical expression of liberty and capitalism are products of that history of interest. Adam Smith didn't spring forth fully formed from the head of Zeus. But the theorizing has one history and the untheorized practice another. So the cultural history of interest in humanities really blossomed in Europe in part because of a prior stake in proto-capitalist practices such as international banking (the Medici, Jakob Fugger).

    To put the matter differently: practice drove leisure, and leisure permitted (and incentivized) theorization about, and refinement of, practice, and so on cyclically. The Renaissance wasn't all innovation; it was also a response to and development of late medieval ideas then in flux because of changing facts on the ground and in the purse.

  18. says

    Four years of liberal education isn't that bad. What is bad is:
    1. thinking you have to do it to get a job, and
    2. the insane cost.

    You can't fix the cost by doing things like more grants or loans from the government. Schools have a pretty simple metric how for much to charge: as much as possible. Extending credit to students merely means that the cost goes up to match.

  19. bw1 says

    Scott Jacobs, even if you are the greatest coder in the world, your abilities will be of little value if you cannot understand and interact with the people, organizations, and processes your software will serve, facilitate, and guide. After 20+ years in the field, I can tell you that if the training you desire were adequate, companies would hire 14 year olds to do their programming and pay them in soda and candy. The value of a trained adult is his/her ability to perceive the needs of PEOPLE and organizations in order to know WHAT to code. Employers want someone who can interface with others to determine how to write software that will be useful to them.

    My first boss was a physicist who was self taught in programming. He used to say "Someone who can write code to evaluate Shroedinger's Equation, but does not understand why or what impact the results have, is useless to me."

  20. Piper says

    Sean: Hey, Gerry, In the 1960s there was a young man that graduated from the University of Michigan. Did some brilliant work in mathematics. Specifically bounded harmonic functions. Then he went on to Berkeley. He was assistant professor. Showed amazing potential. Then he moved to Montana, and blew the competition away.
    Lambeau: Yeah, so who was he?
    Sean: Ted Kaczynski.
    Lambeau: Haven't heard of him.
    Sean: [yelling to the bartender] Hey, Timmy!
    Timmy: Yo.
    Sean: Who's Ted Kaczynski?
    Timmy: Unabomber.

  21. Rich Rostrom says

    The great modernist poet Wallace Stevens was a Harvard-trained lawyer who worked for an insurance company for 40 years.

    The British author Robert Vansittart wrote three produced plays, three published novels, five volumes of poetry, and a screenplay – while serving as a British diplomatic officer for 37 years, rising to Permanent Undersecretary of State.

  22. says

    Of course, they're exceptions whom we lionize as exceptions. How many times have you heard, "He placed a jar. And did you know the guy in the next cubicle didn't even know he was a poet?!"

  23. Christopher says

    I kind of really hate stories like this, because they pick one unsympathetic case, and then proceed to ignore monetary questions.

    So, this one guy had a good job, quit to pursue his dream, and it didn't work out, so now he has a shittier job and a lot of debt. That sucks, and I feel bad for him, but it's not even the saddest story I've heard today. I get that.

    But is there any reason to assume that people like our puppeteer are more plentiful then people, who, say, quit a shit job to go to college at 18, got a useless degree, and then ended up with a shitload of debt and a shitty job?

    And what's the percentage of people who quit a shit job to go to college at age 18, got a really useful degree, and came out with nothing but a shitload of debt and a shitty job because the economy right now is garbage?

    And how is an 18 year old, still basically a child, supposed to know what a useful degree even is? My Dad was once told he should learn to operate the machine for making computer punch cards, because that skill was always going to be useful.

    And also, "Just work at McDonalds!" Is not an answer for many of these people, because again, they have a shitload of debt, and minimum wage isn't going to pay it off in any kind of timely fashion. Also, I'm pretty sure McDonald's doesn't actually have enough jobs to employ every single person in the USA.

    On a separate note, everybody who has ever been profiled by the New York Times Style page has looked like an idiot. No exceptions.

  24. C. S. P. Schofield says


    If the would-be puppeteer had quit his job, hitchhiked to LA, and offered to do scutwork for the Henson Studio it exchange for a chance to learn, I wouldn't be arguing with his choice. In point of fact I don't blame him for his choice as it stands. I just think that the college he went to implied a lot that they couldn't deliver. I think a lot of colleges do that, to a lot of people who get degrees much less exotic. As I've said before, the vast majority of college degrees basically qualify you to study for the next degree.

    I also seriously think that the current drumbeat against "for profit" "colleges" stems at least in part from a feeling among more traditional institutions that if they can't distract people, there may come a day soon when folks begin to look hard at the claims that a college education is the gateway to success …. and that if that happens their very comfortable status quo will get very, VERY seasick.

    The Occupy kids who are complaining about student loan debt that society told them was expected and normal have a point. They have been scammed. Where I disagree with them is with the targets of their ire. They should be occupying college campuses and throwing spitballs at the Professors, Provosts, Deans, etc. who sold them relatively worthless degrees.

  25. says

    Christopher, McDonalds is actually a good first job for a young person. McDonalds has a good training program and recognizes young talent. McDonalds will happily groom talent into team leaders, asst managers and full managers of stores. Sneering at McDonalds really only shows that you are ignorant of the opportunites in that company.

  26. says

    Where did Pablo Picasso get his MFA again?

    (Which is actually a retread of a 20-year-old jape we used to direct at an acquaintance majoring in music at UGA who wanted to be a rock star. "Hey, what year did Stipe graduate, again?")

  27. says

    Picasso's father, José Ruiz y Blasco, was an art professor.

    At age 13, Picasso took the entrance exam at Barcelona's School of Fine Arts, where his father worked. Completing within a few days the prescribed tasks on which candidates usually spent a month, Picasso was admitted to the academy with advanced standing. Later, he also studied at the Royal Academy of San Fernando in Madrid.

    No, he didn't earn an MFA. But he did have extensive academic training in 2d studio. Here's an example of a painting from age 14. Here's one from his 16th year. And here's a sculpture fragment study from age 14:

  28. says

    Thus the irony…

    Nothing Stipe has done would hardly qualify as "fine".

    Hell, it is only the nebulous definition of "art" that allows him to get by on THAT…

  29. says

    Dammit, music as art died with John Cage! 4'33" will never be surpassed by any of this *ptui!* popular music. (For if it is popular, how can it be art?)

    Art is to be nodded over and dissected polysyllabically by a self-appointed class of Brahmins, not stir the easily-agitated emotions of the lumpenproles.