By Charlotte Allen
"Here are some [college] degrees that cost you roughly $30,000 in tuition, their much cheaper replacements, and the savings you'd realize:
Degree Replacement Savings
Foreign Languages Language Software $29,721
Philosophy Read Socrates $29,980
Women's Studies Watch Daytime TV $30,000
Journalism Start a blog $30,000
...Since none of these degrees help increase your employability, you might as well avoid these majors and do it on your own."
The above is an excerpt from one of the funnier paragraphs in "Worthless: The Young Person's Indispensable Guide to Choosing the Right Major" (Paric Publications), Aaron Clarey's hilarious primer for college students who would like to work as something other than nannies and theater interns after graduation.
Clarey, a fairly recent economics major (apparently) at the University of Minnesota, can seem at times humanities-challenged (you don't "read" Socrates but, rather, Plato presumably channeling Socrates), and the punctuation in this obviously self-published book will make grammarians wince (Clarey doesn't think much of his seventh-grade English teacher "still teaching English to English-speaking kids"). Still, at 173 short and highly readable pages, "Worthless" ought to be required reading for every college undergraduate even thinking about concentrating in what passes for the liberal arts these days, much less taking on soul-crushing student debt in order to do so.
Boiled down to a few words, Clarey's message is this: Do not under any circumstance waste your or your parents' time, money, and credit rating to acquire a degree titled "Bachelor of Arts." Those degrees are the "worthless" sheepskins of Clarey's book title. Instead, focus on degrees that will promise you a decent living when you graduate. Those degrees are titled "Bachelor of Science," they almost invariably lie in the "STEM" fields (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), as well as statistics and accounting, and they involve the mastery of math.
Studies--China and India Do
"Yes, math," Clarey writes. "I know at this point most people have probably tuned out. They didn't like math in school. They probably weren't very good at math. And for the most part, people just plain don't like math. To that I respond with one simple word: 'Tough.'" That's because, as Clarey explains, math-based majors produce graduates whom the economy demands--because they are trained to work in fields that produce goods and services that other people want, from cars to healthcare to computer-game consoles. "This not only goes a long way in explaining why liberal art majors face high unemployment and low-paying jobs, but also explains why we have a trade deficit with the likes of China and India whose students DO major in the fields that produce the goods we want," he writes. Clarey maintains that although math may be hard, "it is understandable by the average human brain" as long as the owner of that brain is determined to "turn off the reality TV show, or set down the video game controller, and focus his efforts towards learning math."
The most entertaining sections of "Worthless" contain anecdotes about hapless college graduates who got suckered into spending four years majoring in women's studies--or sociology, anthropology, psychology, or environmental studies--by guidance counselors and proselytizing professors. There's the graduate of the University of Oregon "with degrees in international studies and sociology and a double minor in nonprofit administration and African studies"--now living with her parents after her dream of working for a nonprofit fell through despite her sending out 70 job applications. There's the English major whose most lucrative employment consisted of an internship that didn't pay enough for him to buy food. There's the guy who took out $35,000 in student loans to earn a master's degree in puppetry, only to discover that the best job he could get was as a substitute teacher. "What did you expect with a MASTERS in PUPPETRY?" asks Clarey. (Puppetry falls into a category of degrees that Clarey describes as "New Age Crap," bearing such titles as "Peace Studies," "Social Justice," "Holistic Medicine," and "Master's in Outdoor Recreation."
Clarey reserves his most scathing scorn for majors in "Hyphenated-American" studies. That means "African-American Studies," "Gay/Bi/Lesbian/Transgender-American Studies," and so forth. "Frankly, these are particularly dirty and low degrees, in that they are not only worthless, but they target minority groups as their victims," Clarey writes, pointing out that blacks aren't helped economically by paying tuition to explore their black identity--nor gays helped by paying to explore their gay identity. He can't resist pointing out (via a pie graph on page 133) that 68 percent of the worthless degrees awarded at his alma mater, the University of Minnesota, go to women--which might help account for the supposed "wage gap" between the sexes. His advice to females who want to close that gap: Try majoring in a STEM field (only about 20 percent of engineering degrees go to women, so among the other benefits of the major is "that you'll never be without a date," Clarey writes).
As a recipient of a "worthless" college degree myself (I double-majored in English and classics), I wish that Clarey had devoted few more pages to discussing exactly why the liberal arts have become radically devalued in the eyes of prospective employers. Not too long ago a bachelor's degree in history or philosophy signaled that you were smart and could write well, two qualities that employers prized (and still do). Now, a B.A. seems to signal, "I'm a parasite" in search of make-work at a nonprofit, as Clarey bluntly puts it.
The College-for-Everyone Illusion
Clarey does touch on one reason for the decline of the liberal-arts degree: the insistence that everyone, even the academically untalented, go to college. "[T]oday's college degree is the equivalent of the 1950's high school diploma," Clarey writes--and grade inflation hasn't helped. But he doesn't touch on the other reason: the contents of the majors themselves. It's not just that there's a "women's studies" major (and even a doctoral program at some universities); it's that entire academic fields have turned into sub-sectors of women's studies--that is, predictably politicized. To major in English at many institutions these days, you're no longer required to take a course in Shakespeare, but a course in "post-colonial feminist film" is practically mandatory. It's no wonder that employers write off English majors as airheads and look for resumes where the initials "B.S." indicate that the degree's bearer has learned something that might be useful on the job. It's too bad that learning a vocational "trade" or "skill"--as Clarey points out--seems to be the only valid reason for going to college nowadays, but the humanities have only themselves to blame.
That quibble of mine aside, young people thinking about college will do themselves a favor--and also have a few belly-laughs--by reading this book. Some of them, as Clarey hopes, may even decide to bypass college altogether and go directly into learning a trade. (Plumbers and skilled mechanics earn a lot more than substitute teachers.) Or, as Clarey suggests, join the military, where "they will be more than happy to give you serious work." And serious work is better training for the world of work than any pile of degrees.