Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Monday, April 14, 2008

The Cost of an Education

Last week, philosophy professor Scott Carson linked to a New York Times article on how Philosophy is increasingly seen as a good major from a career perspective -- at least relative to the complete irrelevance it was generally accused of before. Scott asked, and rightly, I would say, whether this really is philosophy (as in love of wisdom, the examined life, etc.) if one is studying it under the assumption that it will give you the skills to "get ahead" in the working world.

The NY Times article further opened itself up for this criticism by noting that "philosophy has attracted students with little interest in contemplating the classical texts, or what is known as armchair philosophy." Somehow I doubt that the insights derived from neuroscience and modern analytical philosophy really provide so much more value than Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics, Epicurus, etc. that their writings need be consigned to the dust heap, or even a dusty shelf.

Still, it was this "get ahead by studying philosophy" idea which was still percolating in the coffee maker of my head when I came across a Wall Street Journal article about the class of 2008 looking for jobs. And what should that article include but a chart showing average first-job-out-of-college salaries by college major. Philosophy comes in dead last. Now my own major, Classics, isn't listed, but I did indeed score exactly 28k as my starting salary out of college, so I think I can claim to have picked a major with equal earning potential to philosophy -- and perhaps even less trendy!

I'm not surprised by this. While I agree with the NY Times article that a solid education in Western thought and culture (if the philosophy departments described are still given that) will provide one with better stronger analysis skills and thus become a job benefit in the long run, one needs to expect before taking this route that taking a major in one of the humanities will probably cost you about five years of "catch up" if you go out into the business world before you find yourself making as much as the Math, Computer Science and Economics majors -- much less the engineers.

On a side note: I noted with interest that Business/Marketing majors make about the same as History majors. This fits, generally, with my doubtless elitist impression that many Business or Marketing majors simply didn't know what they wanted to do but figured they'd get a job by pursuing one of those fields. The fact is, there is no such thing as "business" in the general sense. Adaptation to any one particular company invariably means learning about its type of business in detail, and as such a familiarity with learning the details of something is always going to be better than a preference for generalities.

In the long run, the reasoning and categorizing skills one gains from "contemplating the classical texts", the skills one builds when learning rigorous and structured languages (whether ancient or modern), and the cultural and historical perspective one develops from studying history and literature all serve to make one not only a better person, but also in the end a better business person -- if that is the career on chooses to follow. I would heartily recommend to everyone studying the humanities, it not as a major than at least as a hefty sideline to a technical degree.

But if my personal experience is anything to go by, it will then take five to eight years of catch-up until you're making as much as the person who took a Computer Science or Engineering or otherwise job-specific degree. It can also take a certain amount of scrambling and worrying, since there isn't an obvious "person with humanities degree" industry for you to step right into. However much it may be the case that a philosophy major could (if sufficiently adaptable in mindset) be just as productive in a first job as an economics major, it generally takes a few years to prove it -- and once you prove it, it takes a few years of good annual raises to actually catch up.

Sadly, this sometimes leads to a bias in conservative religious circles towards strictly technical approaches to education. In the Catholic homeschooling group my family belonged to when I was in high school, there tended to be an idea that guys who intended to be priests could study philosophy or ancient languages, but guys who wanted to get married should study engineering so they could get married right out of college, have a good job, and have lots of kids.

So study the humanities -- but understand that to everything there is a cost.

33 comments:

mrsdarwin said...

Note that Drama isn't even listed on the chart, as most theatre majors make exactly no money doing what they love.

Daddio said...

I know I should know better, but I have the same bias. I initially got a BA in psychology and a decent but dead-end job on campus. Finally started making enough to support a family when I went back for some business classes. I have my whole life to study philosophy in my spare time. I intend to direct my sons to major in something practical. Blah blah blah, personal fulfillment, educating the "whole person", yada yada yada. I've got bills to pay and they aren't getting any smaller.

A friend of mine has the same outlook. He says his daughters just need an "M.R.S. degree" and humanities and classics will make them excellent homeschoolers one day. But his sons, unless they have a religious vocation, need to follow in his engineering footsteps and get a "real job" ASAP. I hate to sound as sexist as that. Obviously it's more important that my boys have a strong work ethic and a little common sense than to be wealthy. I'll allow them to follow their interests and trust them to make ends meet, whether that be trade school, military, or philosophy. But I do like your idea of a "robust minor" in the classics with a major in something profitable.

Literacy-chic said...

Woo hoo! Here's to being below the chart!

A couple of things here:

The assumption that philosophy departments are teaching Western ideas. Either they are the only liberal art that has not been tainted by the post-imperial bias against Western ANYTHING, or it is a faulty assumption that they are indeed teaching Western Classics rather than postmodernism and deconstruction.

The other thing:

As far as I can tell, the meaning of a business degree is the paper rather than the skill set. And that goes for most B.A.'s and some M.A.'s. The job is offered to the candidate with the right degree--and this is more true of some fields than others, but maintains some truth in most fields--rather than knowledge of a field. Engineering and the sciences may actually be the notable exceptions in this case. This is why a P.E. (practical engineer) is more valuable in many contexts than a Ph.D.in Engineering. The degree is considered in combination with experience, and experience and ability can trump. But if the job requires a degree in Human Resources, it doesn't really matter what your people skills are, they will be trumped by someone with a degree in Human Resources.

People who want "the job" are not going to be the ones in liberal arts. And increasingly, children are taught that "the job" is the purpose of college.

I'm also going to call you on your conclusion:

So study the humanities -- but understand that to everything there is a cost.

Isn't the cost of the mass of humanity not studying the humanities even greater?

Literacy-chic said...

Looooove that M.R.S. thing, btw. It really serves the girls well when their boyfriends dump them junior year or no Mr. Right comes along. Or is that where religious vocations for women come in? Too bad the girls where I teach are mostly non-Catholic.

Literacy-chic said...

Hey! I'm going to be using my Ph.D. to look for a job making as much as a B.A. in Management Science! Woo hoo!

Darwin said...

Daddio,

I'll admit, the computer sci and engineering majors I knew (and that amounted to basically all my friends in college) all made more out of college than I did. Personally, though, I did not find it hard to catch up. I would absolutely major in classics again if I had it to do over. While it's true that one can attempt to pursue enrichment later in life, you never get another chance like the years before you get married and have a full time job. If you don't study for real then, you probably never will.

Also, though I have some respect for the hard sciences and engineering where there is at least a lot to learn, in my opinion (working in marketing at a Fortune 500 company) there is simply not enough to study in Business or Marketing to be a college major. And frankly, most of what is studied is worthless or worse than worthless.

But I'm just working my indignation up in case they assign an MBA intern to follow me around again this summer. Don't get me started on MBAs...

Darwin said...

Lit Chic,

Actually, good point on most philosophy departments probably not teaching that much Western Culture these days. (As the article said, "ancient texts" are out of fashion.)

I strongly agree with you that a world in which no one studied the humanities would not be worth living in.

Here's my point, I guess: Given that I am a humanities guy (and proud of it!) I'm still a bit annoyed with the folks who go around saying, "Actually, employers value that more than a "practical" degree." Because the fact is: most don't.

It's like the folks who tell you that NFP is easy, and don't worry because fertility never comes back till you're done breastfeeding...

No. If you major in the humanities, you're cutting your income for the next five plus years after graduating. But I think people should recognize that and then do it anyway. Because you'll be a better human being for it.

And if your goal is to go into "business" (what vaguely defined by much desired region) after five years or so no one will remember what you majored in anyway -- except you.

And who the heck wants to be looking back on a business major at that point? At least something like math or economics, those at least generally require lots of thought. But business or marketing? Four years wasted.

Darwin said...

(And after that fit, I'm thinking I just lost any passionate business or marketing major readers we had out there...)

j. christian said...

A friend of mine who teaches at a small, Christian liberal arts school wrote this:

The professor of general-studies humanities-type classes must always face the fact that non-majors are usually quite resentful about having to write essays ― let alone having to take these kinds of classes. A teacher may emphasize that the general studies are meant to show them how to be human, citizens of a free society, and lovers of the good. This in turn ennobles their chosen field of study, however practical. I emphasize, too, that good writing is good thinking, and the use of our minds in the best possible way. But it's hard to get that across when everything else in their educational experience aims only at what is useful. To say that something is good for its own sake is much too bizarre for this audience.

Utilitarian thinking permeates our culture; it is at least up to us as Christians/Catholics to uphold that education is for something else other than purely getting a good job.

Literacy-chic said...

You know I usually agree with you, Darwin. I just like to do so in as contrary a way as possible! ;)

Literacy-chic said...

I'm still a bit annoyed with the folks who go around saying, "Actually, employers value that more than a "practical" degree." Because the fact is: most don't.

I have to say, though, I lost this point somewhere. It sounded like you were saying that humanities guys could get the jobs & do them better. Part of that may be true, but I'm only an impractical academic--yeah, the kind students resent. Reeeaaaaly resent. Unless they come back to tell me that because I taught them how to write, they were prepared for the admissions essay for the Business School. Yeah. That's not so bad. I should for a cut of the first years' salary...

Darwin said...

I have to say, though, I lost this point somewhere. It sounded like you were saying that humanities guys could get the jobs & do them better.

Well, I guess some of that too. You can get a job, and in the end, I think you can do better simply because you're better able to think. But it takes a while for people to catch on to that and acknowledge it with things like salary and promotions.

(My experience is that too much college study of business before actually practicing it tends to lead people to assume they know everything without actually looking at the realities around them.)

So I'd say it's better for you in the end in a practical sense, but unlike a snazzy technical degree, it's not a fact generally acknowledged.

Darwin said...

So much for claiming that my classics experience has taught me to sort things out and write clearly...

Darwin said...

but I'm only an impractical academic--yeah, the kind students resent. Reeeaaaaly resent.

What, they resent the one who teaches the Science Fiction literature course? Is there no fairness in the world? I thought that would generate instant "cool prof" credentials.

Literacy-chic said...

Hee hee. Blogs are for first draft thinking. Inherently. But I'm still stuck on the humanities degree getting the job. I guess that's O.K. If you have a humanities M.A., you're generally scr*wed, though. You're overqualified for 1/2 the jobs and underqualified for everything else. Unless your master's is terminal: MBA, MLS, MFA.

Hmmmm... Is the M.R.S. a terminal degree? I would bet not, if the goal was to use it as a job (as wife & mom).

Darwin said...

If you have a humanities M.A., you're generally scr*wed, though.

Yeah, my sister, with an MA in English (mostly Old English and Old Norse) from Oxford has been running into that...

Is the M.R.S. a terminal degree?

That depends who you marry...

Literacy-chic said...

Haven't taught the SF YET--we'll see in July!! But it's not the "easy A." And generally I teach those useless courses like composition and intro to lit.

Besides, with SF, I may encounter the "everyone's an expert" problem. And yes, they may know more than I do about some of it. :P

Literacy-chic said...

Is the M.R.S. a terminal degree?

That depends who you marry...


And your reasons for doing so. Trying to think how I can get that degree in, too. The Ph.D. tries to trump all. Hmmm... MRS DR Literacy-chic. Whatdya think?

Darwin said...

I was thinking terminal in the Blue Beard sense, but...

Mrs. Literacy Chic, B.A., M.A., Ph.D.?

I think you need at least one or two more sets of initials after the name, though. Could you collect some honorary foreign degrees, perhaps? Or a membership in some very ancient and obscure society?

Anonymous said...

For what it's worth, here's an electrical engineer's perspective on things:

First, the table is true as far as I can discern. I make good money. (Just for the heck of it I recently checked the pay scale at the local public school system. I'm over double the starting pay for teachers here, and I'm slightly higher than a teacher with a Ph.D and 20+ years experience. I have just over 10 years experience in engineering, with no advanced degree.)

Second, an engineering degree is not absolutely necessary in my part of the world. I've worked with a few chemists over the years, and one physicist. But no one with a humanities degree, ever. They're useless in my work. Sorry, but that's a fact.

Third, I've seen a few cross-disciplinary engineers who were successful: aerospace engineers doing mechanical work, mechanical engineers doing civil work, that sort of thing. I once made a remark about this to my boss and he said, "What you really learned in engineering school was technical problem solving."

Fourth, this same boss also said that the most useful education background one could have in almost any company is a BS in engineering with an MBA, preferably with a few years in the workplace between the two degrees.

Joel

Literacy-chic said...

I think there are quite a few fields that are justified in hiring degrees in the field--and not outside of the field. Engineering is one of them. And it is no surprise that the pay scale for engineers is higher than other degrees, really. It boils down to what our society values, and the particular problems solved by engineers of various types are seen as justification for the salary level, which I do not begrudge them, seeing as how they're pulling in NFL and Hollywood money, and are much more deserving! But there are plenty of fields that should be higher paid because of cultural worth--though the culture may not value them (education is one, but I take issue with the supremacy of the education degree). There are also many fields in which the generalist degree should be valued as much if not more than the specialist degrees (like education), for reasons already stated. I would argue that utility being confused with perception of earning power that drives salaries for new B.A.s. That might be the issue--a "useful" degree is employable and adaptable, and may have personal and cultural benefits. A "practical" degree is one that allows the holder to pull in a salary near the top of that list.

Gotta say, I wasn't looking to be rich when I chose my career, and my family could live comfortably on the salary of a starting prof in liberal arts (if I didn't have the student loans or have to pay $3.30/gal for gas). But I do believe that what I do carries a non-quantifiable value, and if that means I'm not pulling in engineer money, so be it. It's also fine to push undergrads into money-making majors--until they learn that those careers aren't suited to them, and that they're not suited to those careers. It's a bit like marrying someone you don't really love because you will have a comfortable life--you know, Jane Austen style. Either decision is one you're going to be stuck with for a while.

Literacy-chic said...

I considered the Blue Beard interp also. Sorry about the PhD thing. I'm feeling a little giddy about the end of the whole process--it's not official yet!!

Anonymous said...

"the particular problems solved by engineers of various types are seen as justification for the salary level, which I do not begrudge them, seeing as how they're pulling in NFL and Hollywood money, and are much more deserving!"

I do appreciate the complement, but the minimum salary in the NFL was $285k last season and will be higher this season. Very few of us engineers are *that* well paid, and none right out of college (though we do have much better job security).

Joel

Literacy-chic said...

Not right out of college perhaps. Actually, I hoped rather than believed myself to be right. I make it a point not to be TOO aware of what other professions make--it's just not healthy to my way of thinking! ;)

Darwin said...

Joel,

I really like your point (or, I guess, your boss's point) about:
What you really learned in engineering school was technical problem solving.

I guess, I'm torn, to an extent. Clearly, for a lot of fields in engineering, the hard sciences, medicine, etc. one needs lots of education specific to the field. At the same time, I think everyone is better off with at least a small amount of higher level education in the humanities (classically understood -- which means most modern college departments in those disciplines are useless anyway.)

Similarly, I'd say one can't be fully educated without having familiarity at a higher level with at least some highly analytical field: physics, chemistry, math, engineering, economics, etc. Someone with a humanities education but no understanding of any of these is also missing some key elements of intellectual breadth.

Also, I think one's ability to work outside the field on studied in college is often greater than generally acknowledged -- though you can't do it without a learning curve. I'm just an analyst and database guy, but I know a couple of other people with classics backgrounds who've gone on to become full fledged software engineers and server admins. It takes a little time to pick up, but generally if you can master Latin and Greek grammar, you won't have a lot of trouble picking up PERL or C++ or Unix administration or what have you.

Other things, though, clearly can't be picked up without pretty rigorous formal training. I wouldn't want to cross a major bridge designed by someone with no formal training.

Daddio said...

Regarding general "business" I agree that most of it's crap. You just need the degree to get the job, and then you have to learn everything on the job. Far better to major in Economics, in which case you are actually learning something interesting and thinking hard (I minored in Econ), but you can still get a good "business" job just like the marketing or finance major. My major within the College of Business was Insurance, and I can honestly say that I learned a lot of truly practical and useful information. Many of the recent college grads that are/were hired at my company (a Fortune 100 insurance company with cheesy commercials, maybe we need a new marketing department?) got hired into the same position that I did, starting in claims or underwriting. Many of them got along just fine, some were language or history majors and this was the only decent offer they got. But I feel I had a definite advantage having taken some classes that related to this field, and were in fact geared toward beginning a professional designation (CPCU) and taught me enough to pass the first three exams without really trying too hard.

Daddio said...

J Christian wrote:
"...it is at least up to us as Christians/Catholics to uphold that education is for something else other than purely getting a good job."

That sounds fine, but at these tuition prices, can you blame us for wanting to get the most "bang for our buck"?

Darwin correctly noted that if you don't study for real before "adult life" takes over, you probably never will. I don't spend near as much time reading and philosophizing as I'd like to because I'm so busy working and raising a family. But again, what am I going to spend my four years and $100,000 on?

I think there should be more of this in high school. And it's a huge reason why we homeschool. I know what I missed out on and I do regret it. It's hard to "catch up" on that stuff when life is coming at you fast. Just think of how much more traffic our blog would have if I was smarter and a better writer.

Literacy-chic said, "there are plenty of fields that should be higher paid because of cultural worth". It bugs me when people talk about how much someone "should be paid". You'll get paid what the market will bear. You knew what to expect when you chose that career path. Besides, what happened to all that personal fulfillment everyone's preaching about? I guess they don't accept "happiness" or "satisfaction" for payment at the grocery store or the gas station.

Literacy-chic said...

Americans judge the worth of things by their net value, as you seem to know well, Daddio. So to say that things should be valued more in the culture isn't really saying anything, is it?--particularly in the context of this discussion. If you're talking about what the culture values, you're talking about what it's willing to pay for. For you, that clearly is NOT education--at least, not education that you can't in turn see as a tangible investment. So when I talk about what a job "should" pay, that's what I'm tapping into. I deal with this very issue in my dissertation, actually. The idea that "culture" (art, literature, education) is often valued according to what tangible benefits it can "get" for the person who pursues "culture." I critique this idea, though, by saying that the ability to use culture as "capital" demonstrates that art, education, etc. has value in the culture, and can be used as a means to advancement. So saying "art shouldn't be used merely as a means to social advancement" is fine, but the very ability to use art in this way shows that it has "currency" so to speak. I chose my profession for a number of reasons, and as far as salary went, I considered it adequate and still do. My lowly professor's salary (when I get one) pulls me above the poverty level (where I grew up), so I'm coming from a very different place than many here when approaching this subject. My standards of wealth are not so far-reaching. And I know that some professors pull in a lot--sometimes more than they are worth, but that's a hard argument to make considering the salary of college football coaches. So in a system that is all relative, in which money determines value, yes, some professions should be paid more.

Literacy-chic said...

So tell me... where do good, red-blooded, money earning Catholic American boys learn to use the talents that God gave them while supporting their families? Is it all about money? Yes, since the grocery stores and gas stations don't accept "self-fulfillment." Unless, of course, they are called to the religious life. But this very approach to profession is what precludes vocations in a way, isn't it? Being a lawyer or an engineer pulls in more money, so why consider what you love? Even if it is the priesthood? Incidently, other professions can be vocations, too. What about doing what God has called us to do? Or does that only work for family size? I'm starting to sympathize with my liberal colleagues who resent the parents (I believe the term used was "Republican voters") wanting to see the "use"--"worth," "utility"--of what they were teaching. Writing. Literature. No value there...

Daddio said...

First of all, I hope I'm not sounding too mean or sarcastic. Just trying to explain something that I have actually given a lot of thought to, but having a hard time explaining.

"Where do good, red-blooded, money earning Catholic American boys learn to use the talents that God gave them while supporting their families?"

They're called hobbies. Obviously some people can make a decent living doing what they love. Many people need to quit following their dreams and get a dang job. On the opposite end, many guys get caught up in money, competition, promotion, etc. They put their families on the back burner and don't care who they have to trample on to get ahead.

That's not to say that the rest of us hate our jobs. We try to find a profession that is satisfying and somewhat interesting. We have to strike a balance between indulging our fantasies and putting food on the table. "Worth" and "utility" and "success" are not dirty words. Our daily work is not always thrilling and fun, but our satisfaction comes from knowing that our wives and children are provided for. We're ambitious, but we keep things in perspective. We "offer it up" on the bad days.

I'd also add, and I hope this doesn't come out wrong, that many of us recognize our limitations. We know we're not going to make it as pro athletes or poets or jazz saxophonists. It seems to me that a lot of the professional academics just have too much pride. They all want to be the greatest thinker, write the greatest book, publish the most articles, earn the most honors. There's no less competition in the humanities than there is in business. Don't begrudge the guys who've decided to just make some money and go home.

Literacy-chic said...

Okay, this is where you sounded mean-spirited, sarcastic, cynical, etc.:

You'll get paid what the market will bear. You knew what to expect when you chose that career path.

Well, yeah. Clearly. I don't begrudge people who just want to make some money and go home--especially if their reason for making money is so that they CAN go home. But is that the reason to get an education? And is that the end goal of an education? For what do/should we value education? And the profs you're talking about basically end up spinning their wheels. I don't aspire to an R1 university, and there's some valid criticism to be leveled at professors who rake in the money without trying to share their knowledge with others than that limited group that they consider their intellectual peers. I don't know too many people following their dreams to the exclusion of gainful employment, but I'll concede that there may be some out there--unless you're talking about grad students, and there I'll take exception! ;)

Literacy-chic said...

All the things you say about "real" jobs--the useful, successful, worthy kind of jobs--are also true of academic jobs, incidently. And being an academic allows me to strike my own balances--doing what I love, earning money to help support my family, and having time to spend with my family. So I understand the balancing act. But that doesn't mean that liberal arts curricula need to be career-oriented. There is some intrinsic value in knowledge that has little to do with money-earning power (at least these days), and the study of the humanities is not best relegated to the armchair--at least, for some people. That's not a universal by any means. But for those who want to learn for the sake of learning, a good, solid, 4-year liberal arts degree allows them to do so in an efficient manner. And such a degree sets up lifelong learning.

Daddio said...

Agreed. A college education should be more well rounded, even for those majoring in something "practical". I suppose that's why colleges insist on tha "core curriculum", and it's a shame that students like me didn't take that humanities stuff more seriously. Maybe at a smaller orthodox Catholic school I wouldn't have been able to get away with such laziness, and would have had teachers that challenged me and held my interest.