Virginia Postrel, Glenn Reynolds Talk About the Value of Liberal Arts, Higher Ed


Here's a great discussion between former Reason Editor Virginia Postrel and Instapundit's Glenn Reynolds about college majors, the higher-ed bubbule, and why Barack Obama was wrong to single out Art History as a useless, impractical course of study.

Nobody has been more forward in calling attention to the "higher ed bubble" than Reynolds and no one brings more knowledge and analysis to lazy conventional wisdom than Postrel, who writes at Bloomberg View. Postrel notes that she was lucky enough to go to college at a time when it was taken for granted that degrees wouldn't pay off economically, so she was free to get an actual education rather than a particular skill that may or may not even exist by the time you graduate.

Related: Reason's April 2013 issue on "Failing College."

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  1. Here’s a great discussion between former Reason Editor Virginia Postrel and Instapundit’s Glenn Reynolds about college majors, the higher-ed bubbule,

    Got a typo there Nick. You mean “higher-ed bubo”

    1. Higher-ed bauble.

    2. Buhbuhbuhbuh-buh buhbuh-buhhhh — Bing Crosby

  2. Art history is a real subject.

    Obama should have singled out every major that ends with “Studies” instead, but I guess he didn’t want to insult his base.

    1. If Obama had attacked women’s studies, would that be the only thing that could make Jezebel turn against him?

    2. Obama should have singled out every major that ends with “Studies”

      Except, of course, History of Studies.

    3. The woman has an art history degree. I agree that it’s a valuable field of study. For one thing, art is the clearest window into human behavior and the soul. You can’t understand a society without understanding its art. More practically, getting an art history degree requires learning how to write, and how to regurgitate the liberal-ass bullshit that your lazier professors want to hear. So in this, as in everything else, Obama is full of shit and is relying on his lazy prejudices. Fuck him.

      1. I believe all of that, except for the part where you said you have a woman.

        1. Oh, Warty “has” women. He didn’t say he was dating them or that the having was voluntary.

      2. One can earn a B.S. in engineering or science. One earn either a B.A. or a B.S. in mathematics. Either is good for future earnings potential. But the only designation with any potential for the art history major is the Mrs.

        1. You don’t have any clue what you’re talking about. And degree snobbery is embarrassing.

          1. It’s not the art history major that is the problem, but the number of art historians that are being produced. How many jobs could there possibly be? And how many of those scarce jobs will be left after the people who got their degrees from an Ivy get them first?

        2. Oh, the world needs museum curators and critics and books about art. Not everyone with the degree is going to get work in the field, but that is true of most majors outside of technical and professional fields.

        3. One can earn a B.S. in engineering or science.

          Or Engineering History?

        4. I have a few friends who are doing pretty well with an Art History degree who would disagree with you. Warty is right, the information in some of these degrees might not be applicable to your job, but a decent liberal arts degree should set you up with enough intellectual flexibility to do well in a wide range of careers. It also makes you more interesting at dinner parties.

  3. ” Postrel notes that she was lucky enough to go to college at a time when it was taken for granted that degrees wouldn’t pay off economically,”

    Wait. What?

    1. Mrs. degree?

  4. Art history has long been the butt of jokes. Obama was just following that tradition. Of course there are much more useless majors. The world does benefit from having a certain number of art historians.

    1. Art history is actually very important. Art reflects and changes society a lot. You can’t understand the past without understanding its art. I didn’t read much or any art history until a few years ago. But learning it changed my perspective on a lot of things.

      1. I can’t believe I agree with you for once.

        Where is that fucking imposter Buttplug to disagree?

        1. Its like bizarro star trek where Spock has a beard.

      2. How does it help you get a job? Unless you’re from an independently wealthy family and are taking classes simply to enrich yourself or to have fun, then I see nothing practical in seeking out that course of study.

        1. It doesn’t. But you don’t have to take it in college. In many ways colleges teaching liberal arts is a sham. It is a life time project. You don’t need to take a course. Just go buy a book and read it yourself or if you want some help join an online discussion forum or book club. I used to think that if I ever won the lottery I would go back to college and take all of the courses I didn’t have time to. Now that I am a bit older and wiser, that would be the last thing I would do if I had the money and time to do it. Why do that when I can read the books and learn myself?

          1. + 1 Goodwill Hunting

        2. I knew a girl who had an art history degree. She worked for Sotheby’s.

          1. The cute antique book girl on Pawn Stars is an art history major. She seems to have done well. But you really have to be a rock star to make a career out of it I think.

            1. Yeah, her job at Sotheby’s low-level and not very interesting, so she ended up becoming a history teacher.

            2. Do you know anything about her personal history? My guess is that she probably started off with wealth. You need to in order for such a degree to pay off.

              1. The “she” I’m referring to is Rebecca.

                1. The “she” I’m referring to is Rebecca.

                  Never mind.

              2. Her dad was a prominent attorney who was very well-off. Large house with a tennis court and a pool, nice summer house down the shore, nice boats docked at the shore house, etc. Not Mitt Romney rich, but very well-off.

                1. So she could afford to study art.

              3. That is my guess too, t though I don’t know. She does work for a fucking amazing rare book seller. Look her up and then go the company she work for’s website. They have a shop in New York and one in Vegas. They sell some amazing shit. Nothing you could ever afford, but looking at their catalog is still pretty cool.

                1. I just don’t see how someone could acquire the knowledge she has simply by studying. She had to have grown up around rare books, which means she is from wealth. Not that that’s a bad thing. Good for her. I’m just saying that a job like hers is out of reach to the common man.

                  1. You are right sarcasmic. I could never have gotten her job. Some jobs are so niche that they are almost guilds. If you don’t grow up around them, you are unlikely to ever get them.

                    1. sarcasmic / John, this insistence that she had to have grown up around rare books to acquire her knowledge is, frankly, bizarre. Antiques experts don’t all grow up at Versailles. It’s seriously not that hard to find experts in quite recherche subjects from fairly normal, if not humble, backgrounds. It’s all about being interested and acquiring knowledge. For example, there’s a rare book dealer in the UK, from a quite humble background, who got into it as a struggling actor. He fell in love with a rare book, wanted to learn more, and now he runs a business.

        3. Art history is pretty useful if you’re going into an arts-related field eg art dealing, auctioneering of fine art, art restoration, to name a few jobs off the top of my sleepy head

          1. The only art history major I knew was our old network administrator. While tinkering with computers at home he got an art history degree, and now he networks computers.

        4. Not all learning is about getting a job, otherwise I wouldn’t learn about 80% of the things I do.

          Plus, there are art history positions available in museums and things of that nature, it’s all a matter of supply and demand. If there aren’t that many people actually getting art history majors (and it’s never been particularly popular) then even though there isn’t that much job availability, you should still be able to command a decent salary because it would still be a seller’s market.

          Here’s some career prospects for Art History majors that aren’t really bad, things like an average salary of $55,000 for a museum curator, $52,000 for an archivist, etc.

          There are worse options.

          1. The degrees you don’t want are a) any of the ‘identity group studies’ degrees, which are fundamentally useless for everything and b) the Master’s of Fine Arts, which is an expensive Master’s degree that cannot be used for anything except becoming a teacher yourself.

          2. Here’s some career prospects for Art History majors that aren’t really bad

            Problem is that there’s an applicant to job ratio in the hundreds. Study art history if you’re interested in art history. Don’t study it for a career in art history.

        5. Well, jobs do exist that require knowledge of art history. Most humanities majors don’t get you a job directly in most cases. Regular history is the same and people don’t make fun of history majors so much.

      3. Oh, I agree. I’m not dumping on art history. Art is very important and there is a lot more to it than pretty pictures.

        When I say “useless” I mostly mean that most people who major in it won’t work in the field. Which is true of a lot of subjects.

        Obama’s comment was a stupid, throwaway joke. He probably should have said “underwater basket weaving” and annoyed fewer people.

    2. Art history is at least a field of study with some connection to reality, and can be educationally positive in the sense that the student will probably have learned something true in her course of study. The “studies” have devolved into a sort of insanity, and are educationally negative in the sense that that the study will probably know less truth and embrace more error in her course of study. The “studies” are, in fact, anti-education and anti-intellectual.

  5. Liberal arts are important. But they only do any good if they are taught well. The problem is that progs have taken over academia and destroyed them. Getting a liberal arts education doesn’t do you any good and in fact probably harms you if you only read various hate studies nonsense and never read any of the real classics.

    Talking about the importance of liberal arts in this environment is like talking about the importance of science education if all of the universities stopped teaching traditional science and were instead teaching astrology and the value of animal sacrifice to the super natural. Yeah, it is great for people to learn about science. It would be however not a good idea to encourage them to take more science courses in that environment.

    1. I used to have this ongoing argument with my son. I’m an engineer, but I agree that all higher education should include exposure to liberal arts. My son argued otherwise, because he just completed college a few years back. In the course of our discussion, I realized that he and I were talking about two substantially different things when we spoke of the “liberal arts”.

      In universities back in the mid 20th Century, liberal arts classes provided a survey, or a least a sampling, of serious literature, philosophy, and history, and were challenging even for engineering and math students. Now, the only challenge they pose is to conscience. Primarily the student must grapple with the ethics of temporarily and insincerely setting aside his moral sentiments to regurgitate the politically correct nonsense that his professors advocate … because otherwise his career in higher education is doomed. What really surprised me was that this was just in the Ivies; insanity in the liberal arts has spread to state universities and even junior colleges.

      1. I feel like I got a good liberal arts education in the early aughts. History, philosophy, literature, science and art, but I have at least a few friends that dove head first into philosophy and the more esoteric ends of sociology (of gender) and whatnot and got weird. It’s unnerving to think that might be the norm now.

  6. Traditionally it was the wealthy who sought after degrees that didn’t pay off economically, because they could. Art history is a great example. If you’re wealthy and have connections, then that would be a great major. You could turn it into a hobby or use it to make conversation when you’re rubbing elbows with your fellow elite.
    But it just doesn’t make sense for the average person. Pushing average people into useless degrees is yet another symptom of wealth envy.

    1. Class envy might be part of it, but I think it has more to do with how education evolved (actually, how it didn’t evolve) as the economy changed.

      It used to be that reading, writing, and arithmetic were enough to get you through most jobs in life. Anything specific to a particular trade could be learned on the job through apprenticeships and the like. People who needed, or just plain wanted, more specialized skills went to college to get them, and college evolved to cater to those people. There was also an ideal that colleges would forge the next generation of leaders, who should be civilized and well educated in a variety of things. A college education gained real prestige under those circumstances.

      But as the economy changed and more advanced, specialized skills were needed to land basic jobs, people turned to college to provide those skills. And people who always looked up to a college education were more than happy to now have the opportunity to get one. But now, rather than educating a small portion of society, colleges got into the business of educating the masses, which the college model is not very well suited to.

      We’d be better off if a new educational model evolved in response to changing demands, but instead new needs were foisted onto an old system.

    2. I believe it was mostly the daughters of wealthy families that pursued those degrees. With the liberal arts degree they could either be a school teacher, or they were basically killing time in college while trying to find a husband. The wealthy sons generally had majors related to the family business or business in general.

  7. The problem is that the traditional 4-year college is trying to do too much. I think there is probably a tangible benefit to a liberal arts education, though quantifying it objectively seems really difficult. But there is also a…I dunno, aesthetic? motivation to a liberal arts education. It’s nice to live in a society where people can talk competently about range of subjects.

    Not everyone may need or want a liberal arts education. But if all you want is technical training, where do you go? Vo-Tech schools, community colleges, etc. are looked down upon, while 4-year college is held up as respectable. So people are pushed into a model that doesn’t work for them and waste time and money getting skills they don’t really need, and then rightly wonder what the point of it all is.

    1. And even the community college forces you to take a pile of not-relevant-to-your-field classes.

  8. Posting this again because it’s continuously relevant.

    W.H. Auden’s syllabus for students in 1941.

    It’s a ludicrous syllabus that includes works by Blake, Melville, 4 Shakespeare plays, Ben Jonson, Kafka, a play by T.S. Eliot, philosophy from Kierkegaard, Rimbaud, Dante, etc.

    That’s one class. This is what liberal arts used to be at elite colleges. The problem with liberal arts is that standards have completely eroded and people who go into this field don’t ever get the sort of education that has value. I know liberal arts majors who can barely write, which should never be possible with an English degree.

    If liberal arts were more strenuous in college, I think people with that degree would be highly sought after due to their wide breadth of knowledge and communication ability. Unfortunately, low standards mean that’s not the case.

    1. Auden was one of the great minds of the 20th Century. He is just one of those amazingly smart and creative people. If comparing yourself to him doesn’t make you feel a bit stupid and inferior, you are either incredibly smart and know it or really have no idea what smart looks like.

  9. My art history teacher, an impassioned, very strict Catholic nun, went to an Ivan Albright exhibit in Chicago and brought back for me his insane programs and mini-books. I was stunned.

    1. I thought nuns had to be women.

      1. That’s some cis-microagression, straight up.

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  11. Contrarian thought. Elite universities are too cheap. They have many more applicants than slots they can offer. Princeton, Stanford and Harvard could fill their classes even if they charged 100k per year. UVA is about the same price as every other public school in Virginia. The price of the education should more accurately reflect its perceived market value.

  12. So remembering Santayana’s dictum, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” if we lose all the art history majors does that mean we are condemned to suffer more Michelangelos, DaVincis, Rembrandts and van Goghs?

  13. I really wish that it could way further than simply talking about the education. Bringing value is also important. Just look around, students use research essay writing services online and they feel like this is alright. See, they’ve got used to using different services that help them to study. Nowadays students are lazy. They are extremely irresponsible and they don’t value education at all. Sometimes I do understand them that there is not much left to value…

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