A Funny Book about Worthless Degrees

“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.

Worthless degree.pngClarey, 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.

Skip Women’s
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.

Charlotte Allen

Charlotte Allen blogs for the Los Angeles Times and writes frequently about cultural trends for the Weekly Standard.

22 thoughts on “A Funny Book about Worthless Degrees

  1. Yes, some majors may appear “useless” at the offset. Finding a job, getting hired, and so on and so forth may be harder. But it is up to you to learn to market your degree in the right way. As Douglas mentioned supplementing can help greatly. Networking is also essential. Don’t be discouraged to pursue the liberal arts or core sciences. Just have a solid, realistic plan.

  2. I can’t remember when I first heard it but one of the more insightful comments I remember about college course names is “If they have to put the word “Science” in the title – it’s not.”

  3. Liberal Arts majors are fine if you have practical minors and/or graduate degrees in practical areas. I was a history major, with double minors in business and computer science. I’ve been in IT ever since. Considering that much of what you need to learn in the real business world isn’t taught in classes, things wouldn’t automatically be better if everyone was a business, math, or engineering major. What you need is an educated mind, the ability to learn and adapt, and if you want to advance, the skills in communicating ideas clearly and eloquently in speech and writing. The inherent problem with majors like Women’s Studies is that they created a mindset that teaches you things like markets and business operations are bad/harmful/unfair, etc. Kind of like hiring a Marxist for a management trainee position.

  4. To J [February 27, 2012 12:24 PM]:
    You wrote:
    “Yes. A graduate with an english degree would not be considered for
    employment in my profession; that definitely wasn’t true 40 years ago.”
    This is the sort of thing I am interested in. What is your profession?
    Do you know of articles about this, on blogs or in newspapers or
    magazines (or on their websites)?
    To Archer Grant and David W.:
    (David W. wrote: Mitt Romney – J.D. (Harvard), M.B.A.(Harvard) Hardly
    worthless courses. I guess this information didn’t suit C.Phillips’
    point so it was omitted…?)
    I did not post the information on college degrees of politicians; that
    was Dave S.

  5. I too was an English major who found that the degree had little immediate value, so I underwent vocational rehabilitation by studying for an M.B.A. at night. It appears that the politicians mentioned above also required vocational rehabilitation:
    Biden – J.D.
    Gingrich – Ph.D., History
    Obama – J.D.
    Romney – J.D.; M.B.A.
    Santorum – J.D.
    Perhaps we all would have saved many years and a lot of money if we had used our college years to acquire skills that other people value.

  6. Anyone who thinks you can learn a foreign language with language software has never learned a foreign language. But I would agree that a foreign-language major at a US university probably isn’t the best use of your time and money: you have to go and actually function in a foreign environment.
    On the other hand, telling someone to spend the $30k to go live overseas isn’t going to get the same cheap laugh as telling them to buy the software.

  7. @James Barton: “Worthless” rates the STEM degrees too. Top of the list are things like Chemical Engineering, Computer Engineering, Statistics. Midlist is Mechanical Engineering, and Civil Engineering is below that. And bringing up the bottom as completely worthless, according to the book, are Architecture and the new hot one: Environmental Engineering.

  8. @David W
    Obama and Santorum are essentially contemporaries. Gingrich, Romney and Biden would have completed their first degrees before the trends being discussed became so clear.
    Indeed, Obama and Santorum probably finished before the trends took hold to the point they have today. And all of them have law degrees IIRC.

  9. Mitt Romney – J.D. (Harvard), M.B.A.(Harvard) Hardly worthless courses.
    I guess this information didn’t suit C.Phillips’ point so it was omitted…?

  10. It’s funny how the first comments are people defending what must be either their own major or field. As for the list of politicians and their degrees, I am forced to ask one question; is this in defense of the article or “proof” for the opposing viewpoint? Surely it is the former, as I cannot give creedence to the notion that any of these rights-violating puppets should be heralded as veritable poster children for the cause of their respective degrees. It proves only that some people attain power in spite of themselves, and that success, if the attainment of power should be called such, can be had for the price of one’s own soul and another’s freedom.

  11. It’s funny how the first comments are people defending what must be either their own major or field. As for the list of politicians and their degrees, I am forced to ask one question; is this in defense of the article or “proof” for the opposing viewpoint? Surely it is the former, as I cannot give creedence to the notion that any of these rights-violating puppets should be heralded as veritable poster children for the cause of their respective degrees. It proves only that some people attain power in spite of themselves, and that success, if the attainment of power should be called such, can be had for the price of one’s own soul and another’s freedom.

  12. @Archer Grant:
    “The content itself is a problem too; liberal arts majors have had most of the broader aspects of what used to be considered liberal arts, particularly general math and science, eliminated and replaced by the subjects Clarey mentions. As part of the engineering core, I had to take four semesters of English, plus tech writing. I can’t recall ever coming across a humnanities major in a science or math class. That probably wouldn’t have been the case 40 years ago. ”
    This is the key thing to understand.
    While working on my BS in Mathematics I took the same first year economics as econ and business majors, history as history majors, literature as literature majors, and music history as music majors. Every one of my breath classes was a class I could apply to a major in that topic.
    Over in the mathematics world my department offered “math for poets” (ie: talking about math and how we feel about it) which counted as the breath requirements for mathematics but was not applicable to math majors. Bio, chem, physics, etc all had “science for people too lazy to work at it” classes so poor Johnny in psych or Suzy in women’s studies didn’t have to actually work at something outside of navel gazing.
    Sadly, as a math major I wasn’t allowed to do that with my science requirements. They made me take real classes.
    Now Johnny and Suzy are mad I make six figures and they are still working at Starbucks. But, as we used to say in the Navy, choose your rate, choose your fate. It is not my fault they choose poorly.

  13. All STEM degrees are not created equal by any means. I’m sure there are plenty of Zoology, Marine Science and other soft science degree holders working in a fast food joint. Hard Science and any Engineering, Math, or Stat majors are the most valued.
    Liberal Arts became devalued when the content taught for a hundred years or more was drained from the curricula. You see it was the product of Dead White men and European Culture. That had to be replaced with Asian, African and Womens material. But you can’t fill up a swimming pool with an eyedropper.

  14. The old humanities, or liberal arts, are no longer taught. The emphasis now is on holding correct opinions, not on connecting with the best that humanity has achieved. Rap is more relevant than Mozart. Comic books are more engaging than Jane Austen’s novels.
    Diversity is also important, especially because it is such a vague term and can be made to mean just about anything.
    Is political science really a science?

  15. “Joe Biden: BA, history and political science” etc.
    The only guy on that list who was seriously exposed is Obama. And it shows. Gingrich and Biden are old enough to be his dad, and even Romney is 14 years older.
    It’s good to see somebody (accurately, in my view) identify the real problem, namely the takeover of all humanities majors by activist minded professors. As much as we all love to mock grievance studies majors, the truth is that in the last 30 years they’ve gone from “practically unheard of” to “pretty rare”.
    “Humanities degrees are not in themselves worthless. They can be made worthless by the way the content is taught, however”
    The content itself is a problem too; liberal arts majors have had most of the broader aspects of what used to be considered liberal arts, particularly general math and science, eliminated and replaced by the subjects Clarey mentions. As part of the engineering core, I had to take four semesters of English, plus tech writing. I can’t recall ever coming across a humnanities major in a science or math class. That probably wouldn’t have been the case 40 years ago.
    “Is this actually happening?”
    Yes. A graduate with an english degree would not be considered for employment in my profession; that definitely wasn’t true 40 years ago.

  16. C. Phillips,
    Funny you mention the degrees of politicians. I read “Worthless” and Clarey actually has a chart showing a break down of degrees from Minnesota’s state legislature and I believe around 80% of them are of the “worthless” variety.

  17. Joe Biden: BA, history and political science.
    Newt Gingrich: BA, history.
    Barack Obama: BA, political science.
    Mitt Romney: BA, English.
    Rick Santorum: BA, political science.

  18. From the posting:
    “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.”
    Is this actually happening? Given what has happened to most English
    departments, this is probably both in the potential employer’s interest
    and also well deserved. But I have yet to hear of any evidence.

  19. Humanities degrees are not in themselves worthless. They can be made worthless by the way the content is taught, however.
    This site risks becoming a haven for no-nothing utilitarians who — paradoxically — further contribute to the unmooring of our youth from the foundations of Western civilization.
    You should devote your time to critiquing (and offering solutions for) the “how” not the “what”.

  20. If one recalls Hillary Clinton and the Russian Reset Button, it is clear that there is a desperate need for credential foreign language studies.
    The Federal Government should establish some kind of “Education Department” with a special entitlement to fund the establishment of university centers where languages could be integrated with politics, culture and geography, as a “National Resource”.
    What ?! We already do that through Title VI ???
    What ?! Generous funding of Russian language for at least SIX decades ???
    Nevermind …

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