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

Monday, November 07, 2011

Rush Limbaugh vs. The Classics

Kyle is filled with righteous indignation against Rush Limbaugh.
In case you had any lingering doubt that Rush Limbaugh makes a good charlatan’s living espousing half-baked pseudo-ideology slyly disguised as principled conservative philosophy, the winning radio host informs us that he doesn’t know what Classical Studies is, but he’s sure it’s a clever socialist plot. His faux-ignorant blather about the uselessness and insidiousness of studying Greek, Latin, Cicero, Plato, Aristotle, Homer, Virgil, the Bible—you know, the bulwarks of Western Civilization that any conservative worth his salt should have an interest in conserving—reveals that he has no regard for the origin and history of our ideas, for the development of the intellect, or for conservatism.
The source of the indignation is a rant which Rush apparently delivered on the air a week ago. Said rant was in response to this "We Are the 99%" plea which was posted in support of the Occupy Wall Street movement:
I graduate college in 7 months with a “useless” degree in Classical Studies. I have worked very hard and am on track to graduate with highest Latin honors. I am in a Greek organization with many volunteer hours under my belt.
I am one of the lucky ones, but I am still the 99%.
Welcome to the American nightmare.
Rush responded to this plea, in part, as follows:
[reads the above quoted "We Are The 99%" piece]

Now, do you think somebody going to college, borrowing whatever it is in this case, $20,000 a year to get a degree in Classical Studies ought to be told by somebody at a school that it's a worthless degree? ... [W]hy is it that no one in her life told her that getting a degree in Classical Studies would not lead to employment? In fact, how many college students do you think believe that just getting a degree equals a high-paying job? Probably a lot of them. Not that you can blame 'em. That's what they've been sold on. That's what they've been told. Ergo, that's what they expect. A college degree equals success, riches, whatever. Not work. This is key, now.
Now, I think the colleges ought to be held accountable here. You show up, you want a degree in Classical Studies, you need to be told what that really means. "Well, how do you want to use your degree in Classical Studies? Do you even know what it is?" "Well, yes, I want study the classics so that I can be an expert in the classics, so that I can then study them further, like, and, you know, help others." "Really? Okay, how much money do you expect to make doing this?" "Well, as a college graduate with a Classical Studies degree, maybe a Latin minor, $200,000 a year, enough to pay off my student loans in the first four years and then after that who knows."

"Can you tell me where do you go to apply for a job with a Classical Studies degree?" "Well, anybody who's interested in studying classically, I would think would be interested in my services because I'm going to be an expert." At that point somebody at the university ought to say, "Babe, you are wasting your time in a nothing major. We are stealing your money. You're gonna be qualified for jack excrement when you get outta here." But they don't. Now, this is part of the trick, this is the ruse, and it's actually clever.
Tell me, any of you at random listening all across the fruited plain, what the hell is Classical Studies? What classics are studied? Or, is it learning how to study in a classical way? Or is it learning how to study in a classy as opposed to unclassy way? And what about unClassical Studies? Why does nobody care about the unclassics? What are the classics? And how are the classics studied? Oh, cause you're gonna become an expert in Dickens? You're assuming it's literature. See, you're assuming we're talking classical literature here. What if it's classical women's studies? What if it's classical feminism? Who the hell knows what it is?
The socialists that run universities dilute the education, they offer useless majors, and then they lie about the quality of these useless majors. They lie about the happiness and the jobs and the money that awaits you after you get the degree in something like Classical Studies. Then -- and this is where the payoff is -- after a generation or two of such students, after a generation or two of such worthless degrees, after generation or two of deceived students with worthless degrees out in the world finding themselves very unhappy, very unemployable, and without money to do all the fun things they want, what do they then demand?

Socialism as a remedy. They demand that everybody else take care of them -- and, my friends, this is not an accident.
Now, I don't think there's a whole lot of question that Rush's ramble here is ignorant and anti-intellectual. Given his total lack of pretensions to intellectualism, I'm not sure that his clear ignorance of what Classics is is all that startling a revelation. As someone whose degree actually is in Classics, I can assure you that this happens pretty frequently. I once had an optometrist ask me, "So did you study classic films or classic novels?" A nice old lady once remarked, "Oh, so you must have read Gone With The Wind!" It shows ignorance of academia, but that's not exactly shocking in a studiously low brow radio host. It's not like the time that the new college president was touring the Earth Science department where my father worked and announced, "I'm so glad to see that you have classes in cosmology. I always like to know where I can go on campus to get a perm or have my nails done." (You can imagine that this led to rampant speculation that she was an affirmative action hire.)

Rush occupies a niche on the right which is something of a cross between the purposes that Michael Moore and John Stewart serve on the left -- which is to say that many people enjoy listening to him spout off, feel a certain agreement, but don't really take him all that seriously or expect him to present a fully coherent philosophy. (Personally, I listened to Rush daily back in high school, and used to catch parts of his program when the forklift guys out in the warehouse had him on at my first job out of college, but haven't heard him since. I lost the taste for his tone -- though I will say that he was generally more polite to his opposing callers than the liberal talk show hosts on the same station.) I prefer a more high brow approach to conservatism, but there's ample precedent this kind of low brow curmudgeonry within conservatism. Indeed, since we're on the topic of the Classics, this is something of the spirit which Arisophanes epitomizes in Greek drama. Arisophanes was a conservative within the Athenian context. And from that vantage point he savages Socrates and higher education in general in The Clouds.

That said, there is, I think, something to be said for a bit of what Limbaugh has to say in response to the "99%" plea. The idea that one should have a sure idea seven months before graduating college where one is going to have a job afterwards strikes me as a bit unrealistic. Maybe I was just too ready to accept the realities of being a Classics major, but I certainly didn't have any clear job prospects seven months before graduating, but the determination that I would find something. After I was done with classes, I flew back out to Los Angeles where we were planning to live after getting married, went down to a temp agency, and explained that I had experience using computers (Word, Excel, Access), doing phone customer service and sales, and that I had a college degree. I did a few interviews and got a job as a "sales and marketing assistant" for the princely sum of $14/hr. (This was not much to live on in Los Angeles, but compared to the misery of doing phone sales for $10/hr, I was glad to get it.)

My younger sister, who hit the job market six years later with a master from Oxford in English and the ability to read Old Norse and Old English took a moderately similar route: She worked at a Starbucks for a while and taught herself to design websites so she could create a book review portal. Then she used that web design experience to get an entry level job at a law firm putting documents on the web for them.

As these stories show, it's certainly possible to graduate college with what the 99-percenter terms a "useless" degree and proceed to get a "real job". As my experience over the ensuing ten years shows, it's even possible to equal or surpass the fortunes of one's compatriots who took degrees in fields like business, computer science or engineering. One must, however, be prepared to scrounge around a bit, deal with some uncertainty, and start out making half as much as some people with more vocational degrees.

This isn't because a degree in the humanities is "useless". I believe that learning Greek, Latin, history and philosophy was very useful to me. But it was useful to me in the sense that a liberal art is meant to be useful -- in allowing one to think like a "free man". It is not useful in the sense of providing instant and easy employment. I think that it would be helpful if colleges and departments were a little more honest about this. It would also be very, very helpful if people took it into account before blithely borrowing large amounts of money. (And if people were less blithe about borrowing so much money in order to fund college degrees, perhaps the absurd rate of tuition increase would slow down. You may be assured that one of the things allowing universities to make off like bandits is that people have the illusion that having a degree, any degree, is an automatic ticket to a "good job".)

Kyle quotes Rod Dreher, who says, “If Limbaugh were any kind of serious conservative, he would be trying to figure out how we can make Classics majors employable by fostering an appreciation for the Classics — this, as a way to restore a love for and knowledge of the cultural foundations of Western civilization, as a shoring up of our cultural defenses against what Russell Kirk called ‘chaos and old night.’”

Frankly, this still strikes me as far too commercial a view. I love the classics and would not have spent my college years any other way. But because I would see classical languages and the canon of Western Literature as being things worthy of study on the part of any free man, I don't think that the way to encourage their study is to urge that we somehow create more jobs "for classics majors". Classics is worth studying even if the job you take will never have anything practical to do with Classical Culture. Studying classics is, fundamentally, a leisure activity. It is not practical, but it enriches the mind and spirit. Rather than having "classics jobs", I would much rather have the people who will go on to be sales managers and advertising writers and loan officers and customer service representatives have spent some time learning about Western Culture during their college years simply because that is the civilized thing to do. Acquiring civilization is not something which should be dependent upon someone giving us a job as a reward.


mary said...

You did allude to it, but I think Rush, however intolerable he may be, has a very good point. Much of the university system in this country is a terrible fraud.

geeklady said...

From where I sit, Rush's little rant looks extra ridiculous.

I have a BS in Biology. I deliberately tested out of any core curriculum classes that didn't pertain to m major, or I took them at a community college on the side. I scorned the very idea that there was anything in them for me to learn. i was going to be a scientist. i was going to do something useful. And it took me years to realize how ignorant I was.

I learned lots of facts. I learned lots of skills. I didn't graduate with honors, but I did graduate with two years of real work experience at the bench in a microbiology lab, and had a job soon after I graduated. But I wasn't educated. My writing, which has always been awkward, I think actually got worse. And now I am trying to learn on my own what 8 years of high school and college didn't provide.

Classical studies ought to be the base of every education, because, done right, it shoukd teach you to think, and can only enhance whatever else you go on to do. I feel this lack keenly in my own life and work, and I feel long in the tooth and stupid while trying to fix it.

Katherine said...

My husband and I received our undergraduate degrees in liberal arts. We both went to liberal arts schools, not considering furture job possibilities, but because we wanted to be well educated. The education we received instilled in us a love of learning and I hope we never lose intellectual curiosty until we are in the grave. It has made our lives so much richer and consequently our homeschooling life with our children much more satisfying. Our two eldest children are currently studying in Catholic liberal arts colleges. Their job prospects are in God's hands and we are sure He will guide them as he has cared for us with our useless degrees. If they have to be wage slaves like most of modern man, I'd rather their minds were at least free.

Salixbabylonica said...

Thanks for a refreshingly balanced reflection on the college debt and employment situation.

Usually discussions of the relative merits of an liberal arts degree versus a practical degree frustrate me by never addressing the elephant in the room: that most of the jobs practical degrees are geared towards could teach any one to perform them with a few months of on the job training. But no, you're required to have four years of classes, but they're still going to have to do pretty close to the same amount of on-the-job training anyway.

When I worked for a prominent law school (a job got on the merits of my actual experience, not my liberal arts degree), it was common knowledge among the professors (and a perennial lament among law firms) that new law school graduates hadn't the faintest idea how to be lawyers. They all had to be taught by their first employers how to do the job. So what exactly is the benefit of spending tens of thousands of dollars and years of your life on this degree? Yet the law firms would never have considered hiring someone without it.

Jenny said...

There is a disconnect between what parents/students/society expect from a college education and what many majors provide. Many people have the assumption that college education equals specific skills equals job using those skills. The colleges do not do much to dissuade this impression. I think they rightly assume the money train would stop.

So what has developed is a class of students who major in some liberal art/classical major and fully expect to have a career doing it, but the jobs obviously aren't there.

If society presented college as a reprieve of time to learn how to think as a free man, these students would not feel so betrayed. I also doubt they would have run up so much debt in the process.

However society presents college as a way to get a job. The colleges tell the students to major in their passion. They spend years learning about art for art's sake and then graduate to discover there are few jobs available in their chosen field.

The colleges need to be much more forthcoming in the employment opportunities that courses of study provide. If a certain major has poor job opportunities, the college needs to justify why the course of study is worthy so the student can make an informed decision. Instead the colleges tell the students to live the dream and for many the dream turns into a nightmare.

kkollwitz said...

In my Kindergarten through Master's Degree time in school, my education boiled down two memorable subjects: Latin and Art History. They have shaped who I am, and I am thankful to have studied both. On the other hand, neither one has contributed in any way I can measure to my ability to make a living, put a roof over my 5 kids' heads, or pay for the college degree of their choice out of my (and my wife's) pocket, without them going into debt.

Matthew Lickona said...