October 20, 2003

2 Percent of all BAs

According to data published by the U.S. Department of Education in June, history degrees comprise a relatively small proportion of the totel number of degrees conferred, and the field is significantly diminished from its standing 30 years ago.

-- Robert Townsend, "History Takes a Tumble in Degrees Conferred: New Data Shows Field Lagging Behind," Perspectives 41 no. 7 (October 2003)

The above is not yet available online, but should be shortly (at which point I will add the URL). Townsend reports that in 2000-01 "history accounted for 2 percent of all bachelor's degrees." In 1970-71, by way of contrast, "history comprised more than 5 percent of the bachelor's degrees conferred." This represents a decline not only in relative but also in absolute terms: in 1970-71, 44, 663 history BAs were conferred, while in 2000-01 that number had shrunk to 25, 070 history BAs. This must surely help account for the history job market decline, and provides yet another reason for history PhD programs to scale back admissions.

Should history departments do more to encourage undergraduates to major history? And if so, what exactly should they do?

Posted by Invisible Adjunct at October 20, 2003 04:14 PM

I am not sure if the comparison was made to history programs 30 years ago is very valid. There are more fields for undergradutes to choose from today than there were 30 years ago.I believe it is correct to assume that the number of people going to college has grown much slower than the number of majors avaliable to students. With more majors and approximately the same number of students, its not surprising that the number of history majors have declined.
I wonder how the study tried to adjust for this.

Posted by: Passing_through at October 20, 2003 05:54 PM

As a card-carrying Marxist literary historian, I can tell you unequivocally that history is bunk. Those of us who need historical awareness are going to seek it out, and that's why it's a good thing that we have history departments. History surveys should not be mandatory, however, as they further decrease the likelihood that an unmotivated student will seek to learn more about history (and yes, I believe the same thing goes for literature surveys).

There is no more contaminated subject than history. Especially as taught in elementary, middle, and high schools it is a Texas-schoolboard consensus of the present. Assigning Howard Zinn in AP History isn't going to solve the problem. What's needed is for PhD historians to move into public secondary education and reform it from within. The history teacher should be a tutor a student meets with when they choose; under no circumstances should children be mandated to study history.

You know the guy in the Heinlein novel about the bug invasion? The veteran? The fascist guy? Not like that. The opposite. I know it may read as if I'm being ironic here, but I'm really starting to believe this. I just haven't fleshed out a series of probable steps for reform.

Posted by: Chun the Unavoidable at October 20, 2003 06:36 PM

"As a card-carrying Marxist literary historian, I can tell you unequivocally that history is bunk."

And as a non-Marxist historian, I can tell you uneqivocally that this is just so much silliness. The subject of history has been contaminated how? and by what? and by whom? And just how much (or how little) do you know about the teaching of history in elementary, middle and high schools, anyway?

"under no circumstances should children be mandated to study history."

Why stop at history? Why not argue that under no circumstances should children be mandated to study English, mathematics, geography, biology and etc?

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at October 20, 2003 07:21 PM

I don't stop at history, actually, though I think history is a big part of the problem.

And I know quite a bit about the textbooks assigned in public American high schools. They, because of the Texas factor I mentioned earlier, tend to be jingoistic to a degree you might be surprised by (especially if you are in fact some type of Canadian).

I think the basic historiographical observation is that history is contamined by the present. Methodological pluralism is probably the best solution to this, but how often is that offered in historical education (at the basic levels)? History is still taught as the pointless regurgitation of facts, facts promptly forgotten.

I most certainly think people should learn history, but I'm very skeptical of the ability of the way it's taught to achieve this goal. Remember the second chapter of Ulysses? Is even college survey history much of an improvement on Dedalus's pedagogy? That scene has been reenacted time and again, and the astonishing ignorance of Americans about history only proves that it should not be taught at all in the current educational system. It's much worse to think that the U.S. defeated the combined Russian/German armies in WWII (as many American college students do--try it out if you don't believe me) than it is to not know there was such a thing, as a desert islander might not. The latter is more immune to history offfered as a justification for the present.

I may soon make a more detailed portion of this argument, tentatively entitled "Against History (and Education)" available on my web site. My argument is not of the libertarian variety, be warned.

Posted by: Chun the Unavoidable at October 20, 2003 07:47 PM

On Chun's post -

I hate to break this to you, but PhD's infiltrating public secondary schools will not make much difference for the forseeable future.

People I know have quit even working for a MA in history once they learned many school systems will hire only people with BA and teaching certification. MA's and PhD's have higher base salaries, and not surprisingly school systems stay away from them - especially if they have no secondary experience and no certification.

Unless unions, state and local governments, and school systems radically change their policies, a PhD will be a liability to obtaining a secondary ed post.

Posted by: better left nameless at October 20, 2003 07:48 PM

Though I'm an avid supporter of my own union, I have to say that, sometimes, teacher's unions wield mighty power for the forces of mediocrity, and that "certification" for someone with an advanced degree in the subject is indefensible.

Posted by: Chun the Unavoidable at October 20, 2003 08:04 PM

Chun is obviously right. We need to build a population immune to suasion based upon false history. In the spirit of Chun, I urge us to consider the possibilities of contamination. Schools are easily cleansed. Mass media, telecommunications, and travel will be greater threats.

I'll take down the Internet. Chun, you guard the borders. Somebody Jewish will have to make sure the media doesn't mention "Russia" or "Germany."

Vigilance people, vigilance!

Posted by: ogged at October 20, 2003 08:21 PM

In response to ogged, I should say that I don't want a population immune to suasion by false history, rather a population mostly unsullied by the current "teaching" of the subject.

Posted by: Chun the Unavoidable at October 20, 2003 08:29 PM

Is this different than say English or anthropology. I would be surprised if it were. A four year education at a private college now costs close to $150,000. Students and their parents want to know what the payoff is. There is no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow for history, english, philosophy or ____________ studies. Major in those and you can go to law school.

Now we can all get our nickers in a wad about this trend, and spout off ad nausium about the beauties of a liberal education (and for the record, I, an old U of Chicago grad, still believe) but the facts are the facts. Its all about the Benjamins. The colleges have set the bar where they wanted to and need to respond to the ordinary and reasonable consequences of their actions.

Chun the predictable: If that is what you truly believe, I suggest that you stay on some academical island like Berkley or Cambridge. Bring that stuff to a school board meeting here in flyover country and you will be bludgeoned to death with rotten zuchinis.

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at October 20, 2003 09:06 PM

I'm not sure if history departments should encourage more majors or not...I guess it depends on campus culture and what they're already doing. However, I would like to see history departments get more into taking care of their students by educating them about the possibilities (there are plenty) for history majors on the job market and how best to prepare for them.

Posted by: Brian Ulrich at October 20, 2003 09:26 PM

Hi Brian. I was a history major and am currently on the job market. Can I please ask, as I'd be very interested to know (obviously :-), what sort of possibilities are you referring to - I'm guessing you mean jobs available distinctly to those who study history rather than to other liberal arts majors in general? Thanks.

Posted by: Anonymous at October 20, 2003 09:39 PM

"(especially if you are in fact some type of Canadian)."

I confess it: I am some type of Canadian.

"Is this different than say English or anthropology."

I don't know about anthropology, but certainly the case is the same for English. And yes, students and their parents want to know that the degree will pay off in the end.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at October 20, 2003 09:57 PM

Seems to me the order of things should be the other way around: first, increase the focus on the teaching of history for *all* students (non-majors). This will increase demand for history profs, and it will then make sense to increase the number of history *majors* to fill this demand.

Posted by: David Foster at October 20, 2003 10:02 PM

David fails to address the very real point that knowing history makes one a bad, malcontented employee. The "hard" sciences so revered by libertarians scoff at historical education, and the average IQ of libertarians is at least fifteen points higher than the normal population. IQ is not, by the way, correlated in any way with historical knowledge, though some evidence suggests an inverse correlation.

Posted by: Chun the Unavoidable at October 20, 2003 10:07 PM

You raise an important point. History majors are not the only students who take history courses. Since many other programs and majors require a history course (often a western civ or world history survery), it wouldn't surprise me to learn that despite the decline in history majors, demand for history courses had remained steady or perhaps even increased. But I believe departmental funding (including funding for new tenure-track hires) is often linked to undergraduate majors.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at October 20, 2003 10:11 PM

Chun, you aren't some kind of contrarian, are you?

And I would say, IA is the *best* kind of Canadian (Angophone version), fully equal to the best of the Francophone and Native Canadians, and not one of the kind who drink Screech and call people hosers.

Posted by: Zizka at October 20, 2003 11:02 PM

On jobs for history majors: Beyond the obvious teaching, law school, and journalism, there are a bunch of careers that use the skills you develop as a historian. Just like English majors get hired on the theory they can write more than interpret literature, so history majors can also cash in on writing, analytical skills, and so on, especially when combined with some sort of quality internship. I used to have a packet on jobs for history majors...I should try to dig it up sometime and make a blog post out of it.

Posted by: Brian Ulrich at October 20, 2003 11:14 PM

A couple of responses and comments to a really interesting blog (why doesn't the AHA create a forum to discuss this issue?!).

On the subject of what history majors (and history PhDs) can do: fundamentally, historians are analysts. Their skills can be applied to a variety of jobs (and yup, I do know historians, both majors and people with graduate training who do these things): speechwriters [these are needed by people outside of the political arena---university presidents etc. use them], journalists, museum educators, curators, managers of historical sites, lobbyists, editors, reporters, intelligence officers (aka the CIA which hires lots of historians), policy analysts, researchers at foundations and even managers of web sites (I also know historians who write for the software industry). Many historians are also gifted linguists and a savvy historian can turn his or her linguistic abilities to a variety of jobs---esp. in America, which unlike Canada and Europe, doesn't have a large population of people who can and do speak different languages easily. I was trained as a medical historian and I currently work in public health (where many people, physicians, policy analysts etc., are stunned and excited to learn abt the history of public health----most of the people w/ whom I work feel that understanding the past is crucial to understanding how to create and implement new policies; this morning I saw a woman who contacted me last spring (Berkeley PhD in Russian medical history); she just parlayed her skills into a fabulous job in global health, working in Russian areas.

History is a great training for a variety of professions (and as an historian of science, I'd like to point out that biology majors are pretty much limited to working as lab techs---if you're serious abt biology, you need graduate training so the idea that an undergraduate major in the sciences will better prepare you for a job is not true).

On the subject of history and its decline, I'm curious abt the role which social studies (which has gradually replaced history in most American schools) has played in precipitating this decline. When I was in academia, I had lots of students who said wonderingly "I hated social studies in high school but I really like your class." I constantly explained to them that social studies isn't history---most American students have not been exposed to history so it's no surprise that they are reluctant to take a course in the subject (it'd be lovely if students rushed to take classes in areas with which they are not familiar but unfortunately, I think that's pretty rare).

When I taught and I found myself teaching world history (glorified social studies), I couldn't help but feel that we historians were killing our own profession. Most students loathe world history---500 years of global history taught in 14 weeks. It's a combination of Mel Brooks/Sir Walter Raleigh---without the humor and without the beautiful prose! And it's not very successful. What drew me to history were the people (glossed over in world history) and the culture of different regions (again, world history rarely allows people to go into the detail which excites students).

Posted by: Albion at October 21, 2003 09:02 AM

I am an historian's daughter -- not the best sample population for an unbiased view of the discipline -- and so it may not come as a surprise that I fell easily and naturally into an undergraduate history major. My college had no history-specific requirement, but I experienced some really wonderful teaching of history at the undergraduate level. I also experienced some really lousy teaching, culminating in an episode which convinced me that (a) certain corners of the discipline are so frantic about maintaining some sort of firm disciplinary identity (as against anthropology on one hand and cultural studies on the other, I think) that they don't care who they have to kill to get it, and (b) I did not want to attend graduate school in history. If I had been able to change my major at that point, I would've.

I wound up getting a PhD and then a job in another, more methodologically free field -- close enough that I dipped into the history job market as well, although I was happy to commit myself elsewhere -- where I studied the same time period I'd originally been interested in using whatever sources and methods I could defend as sound scholarship. I still consider myself an historian, but I'm not in a history department. I don't know whether students take my classes instead of or in addition to history electives, but I don't think the discipline does itself any favors by drawing lines in the sand.

Posted by: Naomi Chana at October 21, 2003 09:13 AM

To describe things from the English dept. side, let me say that teaching first year writing, or freshman composition, or whatever one wants to call it is a teeth gnashing, gind-it-out kind of affair. Don't get me wrong, I recognize that it is "good work," that is, it is something very necessary, and viewed from outside, it may even appear to be noble. But the day to day of wading through stacks of papers that begin: 'In this essay Wendy makes a theory about testimonials and tv in America' or 'Edmundonson says crazy things against consumerism when he buys things himself so he is a hipocrit (sic, so he needs to get with it and except that the times have changed' is a soul numbing affair at best. (I promise you, these essays do not get better after those first sentences)

You were hoping perhaps to get into intense discussions with students about cultural values and ideology, hoping to raise critical awareness, or at least spark a degree of critical acumen so students might go and inquire and interrogate our world and culture on their own? Hardly. What you end up doing is having to listen to them argue about how those sentences I extracted above are what their high school English teacher wanted of them, and how they got B's and A's writing that crap, and 'if you can't see what I'm trying to say, then you're an idiot'. And what do you say to this?

I know the answer, you don't have to tell me. I've been doing it now for nearly ten years. And while there may have been some satisfaction in it all in the beginning, by now I can't really remember if there was or not. Now, I do the best that I can. I cajole, I prod, I joke, I try to "model," in short, I never give up. But come mid-May I breathe a long, huge sigh of relief, and turn my attention to baseball.

Teaching freshman writing will lead one to truly know what was meant when that prof years ago joking answered the question 'what's the best thing about this job' by saying 'June, July, and August'.

Posted by: Chris at October 21, 2003 10:03 AM

Zizka, could you please cram some more stereotypes about Canadians into your next post? I think you missed one or two. What's next, calling IA "a credit to her people"? Wait, you already did that ("the best kind of Canadians"). Sheesh.

IA, I can only imagine what stereotypes and ethnic jokes about Americans are traded north of the border. Monolingual? Arrogant? At any rate, I'm sure some of us are confirming them here.

Posted by: Kevin Walzer at October 21, 2003 10:56 AM

I agree with the sentiments expressed in post #9. Many students (and their parents) don't view history as a "marketable" major, and schools tend to direct their resources towards programs that produce more immediately tangible benefits. While such a bottom line cost/benefit analysis tends to marginalize the very real, although less tangible, benefits (and joys) of a humanities education, it is not an unreasonable line of thought.

By way of example, I majored in history at Berkeley - every semester, the course schedule would list all these wonderful classes being taught in the history department that semester, but by the time the next semester actually rolled around, invariably 1/4 to 1/3 of the courses listed would be cancelled due to lack of funds and/or enrollment. Meanwhile, the chemistry departments and engineering departments are getting brand-spanking new, state of the art facilities. That's just the way it is - as a history major, I didn't like it, but I could understand the thinking behind it.

Posted by: a first time poster at October 21, 2003 01:19 PM

Actually I have several Canadians in my family. The "Screech" stereotype isn't exactly Canadian per se, but my guess is that IA understands it.

Posted by: Zizka at October 21, 2003 01:33 PM

"Actually I have several Canadians in my family."

Aha! Well, that explains why you know about Screech. We're not supposed to tell outsiders...

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at October 21, 2003 02:54 PM

To me, the key to world peace is spreading the abuse and stereotyping around more evenly, instead of concentrating on the usual suspects. I also do Scandinavian jokes. Scandinavians and Canadians are nice, mild-mannered liberal types, and they don't mind, and even if they did mind, you couldn't tell.

The Screech joke actually could be offensive to a certain group, but it's not exactly Canadians. (Clue: Miss World contenstant gets arrested in a bar brawl.)

Posted by: Zizka at October 21, 2003 04:57 PM

#22 First Timer

"Many students (and their parents) don't view history as a "marketable" major, and schools tend to direct their resources towards programs that produce more immediately tangible benefits."

This is a multi-step process. First step, the colleges set their tuitions at astronomical levels. Second, students borrow money to pay tyhe tuition. Third, Students and parents freak out over the prospect of repaying the loans. Fourth, they conclude that student needs a good job when he graduates. Fifth, they agree that humanities are out of the question as there is no career path. Wash, rinse, repeat. Nobody is majoring in history (english, etc.) and they all want to major in economics, biology, etc. Colleges stop hiring faculty in humanities and start hiring in other fields.

The first step on the primrose path was the colleges.

"By way of example, I majored in history at Berkeley - every semester, the course schedule would list all these wonderful classes being taught in the history department that semester, but by the time the next semester actually rolled around, invariably 1/4 to 1/3 of the courses listed would be cancelled due to lack of funds and/or enrollment."

I wonder. If Professor A is obligated to teach 2 courses a semester and he lists a course in the schedule but nobody signs up for it, has he discharged his obligation? can the administration force him to offer something else the next semester?

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at October 21, 2003 05:05 PM

In response to #26

"The first step on the primrose path was the colleges."

With respect to who's to blame (if "blame" is the correct word) for the fact that humanities and social sciences are not popular majors, I honestly don't know; I tend to see it as more of a vicious circle, a la your "Wash, rinse, repeat" observation. I would only add that even at a public university like Berkeley, where costs were - relatively speaking - not that high when I attended, my experience was that even students who had no problem paying the tuition balked at majoring in history, english, etc.

"I wonder. If Professor A is obligated to teach 2 courses a semester and he lists a course in the schedule but nobody signs up for it, has he discharged his obligation? can the administration force him to offer something else the next semester?"

Good question. I don't know. I do know there were some history classes I signed up for where, even though there were 10 to 15 students enrolled, the class was cancelled. Clearly, it was not that *nobody* signed up for it; just not enough people in the eyes of whoever made the decision to cancel the class.

Posted by: first time poster at October 21, 2003 05:47 PM

And I bet IA has used the term 'hoser' from time to time.

Posted by: Chris at October 21, 2003 06:13 PM

10-15 years ago my son's one-time boss said, "Well, as a history major my choices were Law School and Grad School, so I decided to start my own business." So he started a contracting business similiar to his father's, and did well. He didn't regret going to college but I think that he didn't have a lot of debt.

So the history major has been impractical for awhile. If you don't want to make your own job (media, non-prophets, etc), it requires expensive further education (one-year MAT, minimum). I actually think the cultural-enrichment aspect of education is a very good thing, but we shouldn't ask people to start there lives with five-figure debt and a

Posted by: Zizka at October 21, 2003 07:03 PM


I would venture to guess that most of us are "non-prophets." =D

Posted by: first time poster at October 21, 2003 07:17 PM

As a first time poster, a quick statement of position: I'm an undergraduate doing an honours thesis (I believe this is somewhat like the US "senior thesis") in computational linguistics in Australia. My exposure to history at university was limited to first year European history, which I took voluntarily and which, as it happens, was taught by some of the best lecturers I've ever had.

That said, I'm not entirely sure that Robert Schwartz's points about the decline of history (and humanities) enrolments is on target. At least, US-style monstrous tuition fees aren't a necessary condition for the decline in enrolments, although they certainly could be sufficient (if I'd had to pay US$150 000 for a degree, it probably wouldn't have been my five year "I'll do anything you're teaching" double degree).

In Australia the government currently pays about 2/3 of tuition for students who are citizens or permanent residents, and students graduate with a debt normally around AU$15 000-AU$20 000. Moreover, the debt is paid back via the HECS scheme, and interest is compounded yearly according to inflation, not according to market interest rates.

In spite of the fact that Australian students thus spend less on our tertiary education and graduate with less crippling debts, there has been a similar decline in interest in humanities majors in favour of business, computing, law, medicine and other "professional" and "vocational" majors. ("Vocational" seems to be a term for majors that were not taught in universities until the 1980s -- tourism is the classic example -- rather than for professional degrees that have been taught in universities for longer, like law and medicine.)

Perhaps the opportunity cost, both of three or four years of not earning a salary, and of three of four years studying humanities rather than business, is the factor that is counting most heavily in both cases. I certainly suspect this is behind the move to "job market" majors in Australia.

Posted by: Mary at October 21, 2003 08:41 PM

Mary: as a Non-prophet you raise an interesting point. I can think of a couple of factors that are at work in the US. It would be interesting to know if they are effective in Australia.

One is demography. When I went to college a generation ago, only 25% or so of my age cohort went. In particular, many women did not go because their families were not willing to spend the money on their education. Today the % of the age cohort in College is verging on 50%. Liberal arts has always been the province of those classes that disdained manual labor, but the new classes who are participating in College do not see liberal arts as a feature or a future.

A second factor that may operate internationally is the hermeticism of contemporary academia. The relentless focus on the intricacies of "Theory" and methodology by academics is guaranteed to send the average undergraduate to study something simple and comprehensible like quantum mechanics or neuro-anatomy.

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at October 22, 2003 08:41 AM

"Liberal arts has always been the province of those classes that disdained manual labor, but the new classes who are participating in College do not see liberal arts as a feature or a future."

Yes, I think there's something to this. We are a long way from the notion that the young men of the ruling classes must study history as a preparation for public careers.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at October 22, 2003 09:55 AM

You know, for all the wailing about the "death" of history, interest in it remains surprisingly lively outside the academy (albeit, I easily admit, for an often inaccurate, bastardized form -- the history of the American West is especially vulnerable to this!).

So, the question is: what is it about _academic_ history that no longer appeals to the general population?

Is it that it seems to "talk to itself" about minutiae that fascinate practioners but no one else? (Note that I say _seems_ to -- this is sometimes true, but often just perception -- though no less damaging for all that.)

Is it that political slants on the past disagree with those of the general public? (Which would be silly in a conceptual sense, given that most popular historical works also have a slant, albeit an often unacknowledged one, towards unthinking patriotism.)

Is the public unwilling to think deeply about these topics in a critical manner (I don't think so -- but have they been encouraged to do so in a way that rewards them as well as academics?)?

Is it because most history classes in college today are, as has been suggested above, too broad to give students a firm sense of history?

Is it that many of such classes serve too many masters (fill gen eds, teach students basic writing and research, catch up on what used to be covered in civics or world history in high school...) and thus serve none of them (let alone the discipline itself) well?

What I'm trying to get at is, that if "history" is in decline, it is _academic_ history, and the reasons behind that are probably as numerous as (and not unrelated to) the reasons more young adults tend college even as they value it less.

(Or do they? We speak of a halcyon era in which all college students worked hard and were prepared -- but was this the result of narrow training in specialized fields and exclusionary admission rather than stemming from the broad multitasking needed by today's students in combination with generous admission policies and financial aid? But that's another debate.)

Posted by: Rana at October 22, 2003 10:17 AM

Sorry -- that should be "attend college" -- I'm dashing out the door on my way to work.

Posted by: Rana at October 22, 2003 10:20 AM

IA, I'd complicate that thought a little bit; history is still a part of the liberal education for those men of the ruling classes, but it's not as a preparation for a public career, it's to serve as a marker of class distinction. The liberal education is still alive and well at Amherst and Swarthmore and a few other small expensive elite colleges; it's simply become a token of cultural advancement that -- when junior gets a job via the networking he does at Amherst or Swarthmore (which is what such schools are for) -- he'll use to distinguish himself from the great unwashed who attended Big State U for their vocationalized skills-based and middle-management career-oriented educations. In such a context, Chun's Arnoldian vanguardism actually serves quite nicely: give the rabble at Big State U the skills-based courses that'll reassure parents that there's a concrete and salaried "payoff" for such knowledge (viz. the justifications of Brian and Albion) and don't sully their little minds with impure knowledge that will so contaminate them they'll never be able to learn anything else, and save the pure and higher knowledge for those classes who deserve it.

If it's not obvious, I believe Chun's perspective bespeaks a profound contempt for students' intellectual capabilities -- the same sort of contempt that I wince to see in Chris's post, as someone who's been teaching first year comp for close to ten years myself and who still finds it tough but intensely rewarding work, and who looks forward to September rather than to May. Chris, if you don't like the teaching and you don't like the students, maybe it'd be wise to think about some other profession?

The thing is, the hope for critical discussions about cultural values and ideology that Chris mentions seems to me to be a component of that liberal education model that our contemporary demands of "What's the payoff?" makes us turn away from. All education -- unless daddy's got the bucks and the connections to send you to Swarthmore or Amherst, in which case you've already got it made, and there's a spot for you waiting in his golf buddy's law firm -- has come to serve the economy.

Posted by: Mike at October 22, 2003 10:40 AM

If I could get out, Mike, and get out to a place other than Borders or Kinkos, I probably would. But, alas ....

However, on another note, don't mistake my frustrations with American secondaray education for an elitist lament for the good ole' days when we didn't have to deal with the "great unwashed."

Posted by: Chris at October 22, 2003 01:26 PM

Amherst, Swarthmore, etc., are indeed expensive, but many such schools have excellent scholarship help. I think the cost of college pinches hardest for families of some bu moderate means. Even with loans only the very richest families could afford to pay the full cost for (let's say) 3 kids, totalling $300,000. Quite poor families can attend these schools with scholarship help, but for a family with a decent income and some net worth, the scholarships aren't good.

Posted by: Zizka at October 22, 2003 04:31 PM


I believe the demographic factors you identify are indeed at work in Australia. Certainly, the percentage of the population who attend university has risen along with the fall in status of the humanities major. (I do not know whether the absolute numbers have fallen, but the relative numbers have.)

I also agree with later posters that the humanities major retains some status among traditional elites, but in Australia, that seems largely confined to a tendency to do a B Arts alongside a LLB (Bachelor of Law). (In Australia, law students are admitted straight out of high school, as long as they take a second undergraduate degree alongside the law degree.) Even the children of the rich and powerful, who can get a job through Daddy, will generally not be found doing a B Arts alone. A BA generally has one of the lowest standards for admission of any undergraduate program (the Australian tendency to admit students based on their comparitive score on state-wide written exams taken at the end of year 12 lets admission standards be compared nicely).

Posted by: Mary at October 22, 2003 07:03 PM

Point taken, Chris, and I think my comment came on stronger than I intended it to in some ways. In other ways, perhaps not strongly enough: the contemporary public discourse in which The Economy becomes the justification and the rationale for everything seems to me to be the primary reason for education's "marketability", as Robert names it, driving before it all other concerns about students' choice of majors, and perhaps also the primary reason you encounter those combative students in your first-year writing courses who resent having to pay for and do well in an across-the-board required course that has no perceivable "payoff", especially if the teacher's privileging silly stuff like careful critical work over marketable skills. The economy has gone from being something that can be managed and developed to a naturalized and transcendent abstracted (but still perceived as somehow more concrete and real than, say, "culture") system which all else must serve.

In such an unhappy context, perhaps Chun's right: tomorrow's worker bees don't need history.

Posted by: Mike at October 22, 2003 07:14 PM

How to get more students to major in history.
My $.02:

1. Stop fragmenting history into different race/gender-studies courses. If the content is applicable to history, it goes in the history dept. Diversity of thought in the history dept is a good thing.

2. Make the study of history worthwhile.
a. In my undergrad days, my 1st history class told me that "there is no objective fact in history, only point of view." This made me think immediately "then why in the hell am I here, if you're just going to give me your opinions." You have to feel like your time is well spent.
b. Cross pollinate history programs with more practical fields. What can you do with a history degree? But if you can also make films, or write, or do statistics, you can make use those skills with history to get or make a job for yourself.

3. Require professors to retire sooner, so there'll be additional jobs in the market for them. This is rude, but if 100 schools churn out 10 PhDs a year, and there are only 100 jobs each year, 900 students who may want to study and teach history are SOL. They'll tell their friends and family "my history degree did nothing for me; now I design web pages for a living."

I think that's all the spew I'll do today.

For the record, I got a graduate degree in Theoretical Linguistics and my advice goes double for those jokers.

Posted by: passerby at October 22, 2003 08:45 PM

Poster # 36 ("Mike")

I'm a graduate of one of the two institutions you mention and am highly insulted by your baseless jabs. Do you actually KNOW anyone who went to one of those two schools?

Either way, I can assure you that the schools do not exist merely to provide networking opportunities. If that's the case, then society must place an enormous price tag on networking opportunities. Ask any of the students there who spend countless hours every week studying themselves into oblivion and you'll come to understand that the high-quality, rigorous education provided by those institutions doesn't leave a lot of time, energy or resolve for simply "networking".

In fairness to you, there indeed are people at those colleges who look at it as a networking opportunity, but those are the same people who look at everything as a networking opportunity. You literally find them everywhere including, yes, state schools. (Does "fraternity" mean anything to you?) But a very large portion of the students that I knew personally actually displayed tremendous intellectual passion (for which those schools have earned a well-deserved reputation), and many went on to pursue PhD's, not some cushy position at Daddy's friend's firm. In fact, these schools probably send a greater proportion of their students to PhD programs than the vast majority of others in the country. (Indeed, one of them was cited not too long ago as having the HIGHEST such proportion.)

Accordingly, please check your facts before making any vague, senseless pronouncements about places such as Amherst and Swarthmore, or at least consult a statistically significant sample of people who actually went there. To tell the truth, the networking nirvana of which you speak seems much more to be the province of Ivy League schools, but let's not even begin to get into that. Most people haven't even heard of Amherst and Swarthmore to begin with, and that lack of name recognition alone hardly makes them the magnets for people who intend for their resumes to be high on polish and low on substance.

By the way, on a personal note, I've been working in the private sector for well over a decade and I can assure you that I had no comfy school "connections" to rely upon for getting any of the jobs I've held. In fact, I'd argue that the quality liberal-arts education I received went a long way towards developing in me, and in others who ultimately didn't pursue PhD's, an immense degree of resourcefulness and self-sufficiency that served us very well once we were cast into the job market.

Posted by: Anon at October 23, 2003 09:39 AM

I teach at a very close cousin institution to one of the two mentioned. I would not characterize it as a bastion of pre-professional conservatism, or a precursor to corporate careers. That said, I would characterize it as an anomalous environment far afield of the mainstream of American cultural values and trends.

Don't get me wrong, I am thrilled that it exists. It is the soul-saving counter-point to my other job at a Mass-Market-State-Univ. But that said, it is no way representative of anything other than itself -- and the fairly small community of other institutions like it.

And despite the bubble-like (the students use this phrase) utopian intellectual environment that it is, I still advise prospective English majors to double major or minor in econ., poli.sci., or some bio-research oriented major. Because like it or not, they are soon going to run smack into the thich high wall of the personel director who wants to know if they can enter data, and doesn't care a bit about the their senior thesis on ideological landscapes in Synge.

Posted by: Chris at October 23, 2003 10:44 AM

One comment:

a loan is still a cost. Student loans are not free money.

Posted by: JT at October 23, 2003 03:50 PM


Indeed, and the extent to which the Australian "student loans" (which only occur interest according to inflation rather than market interest rates) are keeping students, especially students from poorer backgrounds, out of university is debated here.

But my point was that student loans aren't the only, or perhaps even the most important, factor keeping students out of humanities majors -- since Australian students incur a much lower cost in that respect and still stay away from them.

Perhaps a comparison between a higher cost and a lower cost isn't a valid way to make this point though -- after all "I should do a history major, because tuition is far more expensive in the US!" isn't a rational way for an Australian student to choose between majors.

Posted by: Mary at October 23, 2003 06:25 PM


No need to use quotation marks around my name; I included an e-mail link and a URL, and am happy to provide an identity to which one might respond. You're right to call me on my rhetorical bombast: yes, as is fairly evident, and as I noted to Chris, I was overstating a lot of things. The daddy's firm and golf buddies swipes were certainly overstated, but also not without truth. And there are a lot of things I wasn't overstating. In past years, I've worked with students from one of those institutions on an almost daily basis, and know them quite well.

You assume that "networking" is something that one goes out and does. Part of my point is that at such institutions, with roughly 1,500 students -- far smaller than many high schools -- one doesn't have to do networking, it's a part of the package for every one of those 1,500 students. Your counterexample of the Greek system serves quite nicely, when you consider that Greek systems might have that many students in them at Big State U, with average enrollments of 30,000 or so. So: networking for all in a small, tightly knit community, or networking for the fraction who seek out the Greek system.

As for percentage of PhDs: that's precisely my point, I'm afraid. Big State U is vocationalized. Amherst and Swarthmore are for the elite pursuing the life of the mind and the life of intellectual culture not tied to or bound by the careerist material concerns of the hoi polloi. We are in unfortunate agreement, and seem to simply differ over the way we view such a set of circumstances.

You urge me to check my facts, which I will do, but I've first got to point out the bit of inconsistency in disingenuously proclaiming that "Most people haven't even heard of Amherst or Swarthmore" in the very same paragraph where you brag about their reputations (not to mention the fact that Amherst's web site refers to the college as America's "premier liberal arts college": yeah, never heard of it). So, some facts: I chose Amherst and Swarthmore as examples because of their many commonalties, beginning with their tuition and size: roughly $36,000 per year and 1,500 students in each case. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, that stratospheric tuition is nearly 4 times the amount of average out-of-state tuition at a public school, and 8 times the average in-state tuition. Less than 4% of American college tuitions are over $27,000 -- brother, can you spare $9K? Both schools have endowments approaching 900 million dollars for their 1,500 students: compare that to your typical Big State U, with a $200 million endowment for 30,000 students.

These are vast class differences. They are very closely connected to the point I was making in the first paragraph of my original response, which was talking about the difference between a liberal education and the Big State U vocationalized education, and my point was that the elite liberal arts schools don't insert "payoff"-oriented job skills into their curricula like Big State U does and they know they don't need to, because that's not the reason for such schools' existence. In that sense, if you'll go back and look at the original response, you'll see me pointing towards the way the rhetoric of the "payoff" of job-related courses actually serves to reproduce class divisions: the middle class gets vocationalized and so remains suitable for middle-class work, and the elites hold on to their liberal educations, and so hold on to their elite positions. (Bowles and Gintis offer some useful insights about this phenomenon, as do Jean Anyon, Pierre Bourdieu, and others.)

I was not in the least impugning the quality of academics at Amherst or Swarthmore: I can't stand the fact that education has become so vocationalized that we can believe that students don't need to take history courses. I think it stinks that we're so convinced that an education has to serve an all-consuming economy. And, yes, I wish more schools were holding onto the liberal education model.

Sorry to have ruffled your feathers.

Posted by: Mike at October 23, 2003 09:13 PM

Mike -- one of the problems we're dealing with might be just what you said. Amherst and Swarthmore (and my alma mater, Reed) don't provide "payoff" practical education. But through scholarships, they make it possible for a lot of non-rich kids to get impractical educations. The 3 kids my son's age who went to these two schools were NOT from wealthy families. What they're doing now (age 30), I don't know, but they're not cashing in on family connections.

Posted by: Zizka at October 23, 2003 10:18 PM

Point well taken, Zizka. At the same time, those schools are home to a lot of rich kids, too. Perhaps we're both stumbling over relative definitions of wealth.

That said, those students are privileged in other ways (Chris' "bubble" seems quite apt), as well: consider the sorts of school districts that produce students with an average SAT score well over 1400 -- the mean at both schools. Poorer school districts are struggling to just get their kids to graduate. I've been doing some more digging on this topic and on various types of education (liberal and otherwise), and I'm trying to put something together to put up at my own place within the next hour or two.

Nice discussion.

Posted by: Mike at October 23, 2003 10:45 PM


It seems you have a lot to say, and I unfortunately don't have sufficient time to even begin to cover all points.

Overall, I'm not sure what point you're trying to make. I do appreciate that you acknowledge that some statements of yours were overstated. And I do agree with you on a number of things. I hate the vocationalization of education everywhere, including liberal arts schools (where it's increasingly prevalent but in more subtle ways). And I hate the spiralling tuition costs, especially at the smaller places. I can assure you that when I went it was nowhere near what it is today, and the schools seem to be in a weird, neverending "arms race" to associate themselves with higher and higher "premium" costs for a "premium" education. It's truly disgusting.

But you do get a very good education there, and it's available to a lot more people than you think. As a previous poster said, such schools can be quite generous with financial assistance and more often than not go out of their way to help ensure that it will be available to more than just a handful of wealthy families. The percentage of students there receiving financial aid, in fact, is quite high.

I also don't like the implication that such schools consider themselves to be above "hoi polloi" vocational concerns. What I didn't expand upon in my previous post is that a lot of students also go on to become MD's or JD's. As implied above, there is indeed a weird trend that I sense there towards more vocationalization, it's just rather well-hidden and subtle. "Biology" is rarely little more than pre-med these days, and "poli. sci." is rarely little more than pre-law. And they keep pouring millions of dollars into spanking new science facilities; hardly to attract top-of-the-line researchers, which is not what those schools are usually about, but more - I think - to reach out to families who do want to push their kids into med. school and who might not otherwise be "dazzled" by what the rest of the campus has to other. Such temples are hardly different from those being constructed at state universities for other purposes (as seen in another thread here); it's all about pandering to the consumer.

Maybe we do have a convergence of agreement on some things here; it just set off a raw nerve to hear all sorts of generalities about places that I'm much more familiar with. And you mention that it was disingenuous to say that those schools both have name recognition and are not all that well known in the same paragraph. I said that the schools have a well-deserved intellectual reputation on the one hand but (in the NEXT paragraph) I said that most people haven't heard of both schools. I stand by both comments. Overall, the vast majority of Americans have not heard of both schools, especially the further away you get from the East Coast. Believe me, I know. But a reputation does exist among those who are knowledgeable about colleges to begin with - perhaps that's what I should have clarified. However, there is an all too familiar refrain played over and over again where an Amherst or Swarthmore grad hands a resume to a personnel director or employer at company X, only to be met with the reaction, "You went... WHERE?". The reaction, indeed, would be different if the resume said "Yale" or "Harvard", which essentially everyone has heard of.

And one more comment, about networking (pretty much what started this off in the first place). Yes, networking can happen anywhere and I still feel that there are students - at all schools - who are more drawn to it than others. My whole point is that the vast majority of students hardly go to Swarth. or Amh. saying to themselves, "Wow, what a networking opportunity!". They go for what they perceive will be a quality education, with small class sizes, a stronger commitment to intellectual pursuit and a reduced emphasis (at least on the surface) on vocationalization and specialization.

Indeed, may people from those schools who go on to PhD's may end up being lambs to the slaughter but on the other hand they probably end up in tenure-track positions at a higher rate than students from a lot of other institutions. The rigorous academic atmosphere helps ensure this. My friend, people don't go to those schools to spend a large portion of their time drinking beer; they appeal precisely to those types of students - from all walks of life - who want to study, study, study, and who are turned off by what appears to be a rampant sense of anti-intellectualism (and immense peer pressure associated with fraternities, etc.) at larger schools. And I do maintain my position that a liberal education (as you seem to agree) does prepare students much better for the vagaries of the "life after", in that they've learned to think more broadly. (Though I do think the SOCIAL atmosphere of those schools could be much improved to prepare people for the "real world"... No, this isn't another apparent contradiction here, what I can say in general is that campuses such as these are often a little too isolated from the communities around them.)

Posted by: Anon at October 24, 2003 09:55 AM

Anon, MDs and JDs aren't vocations. They're professions. At the top of the food chain.

Amherst and Swarthmore vet far, far greater proportions of their students for those professions than do Big State Schools. And those students are most emphatically not from "all walks of life" in the same way that students at Big State U are. In short, the hierarchization of higher ed perpetuates the same trends detailed by Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis, and by Jean Anyon, who I talk a little more about here.

My point is that colleges like Amherst and Swarthmore offer an elite education, with courses that do not translate directly into the "payoff" or "tangible" "practical" benefits described by other posters as being demanded by parents and others. The difficulty is that such demand is often "The Economy" speaking, looking for skills that will be applicable to the large majority of jobs available (or, today, not so available). Because of the composition of the American class system (and I suppose I'd best add Canadian, though I speak from a position of zero knowledge), these jobs are middle-class jobs. Elite jobs (doctors, lawyers, economists) don't rely on those "payoff" or "tangible" or "practical" benefits, and so distinctions are made in other ways.

Consider, again, the question of majors. At Amherst, roughly 20% of students -- the biggest chunk -- take pre-law majors, either in the political science or in the law & jurisprudence tracks. At Big State U, roughly 20% of students -- the biggest chunk -- major in business and marketing.

You suggest that students don't attend Amherst or Swarthmore to drink beer, and that they're turned off by the anti-intellectualism at larger schools. But students at those larger schools can't go to Amherst or Swarthmore -- so they're stuck with what graduates of Amherst and Swarthmore perceive as beer and anti-intellectualism, thereby reinscribing class divisions. An elite education, in the way it distinguishes itself from other sorts of education, is anti-egalitarian, and is not available to everyone.

People with less money don't have the same chances you had, Anon. And the way that interrupts America's self-deluding egalitarian narratives makes a whole lot of people uncomfortable, because if the system isn't fair, that might mean that the people in privileged positions had a lot of lucky breaks and didn't get into those privileged positions entirely on their own merits.

Posted by: Mike at October 24, 2003 05:25 PM

I've just learned about this conversation from reading Mike's post at Vitia, and I can't respond to its rich complexity. But as a person who headed west to graduate school (first University of Utah, then Stanford) and a person who got a teaching job at a community college in California in 1965, the conversation strikes me as mostly geographical. I think Massachusetts folk and New York folk have been arguing these issues vigorously for a very long time now (Bowles and Gintis first published in the early 70s, I think) and they never seem to have Texas or California reference points where more students attend college in various types of institutions.

It's even interesting that Reed is the one western institution referenced in the discussion, since I guess it's seen as having Eastern liberal arts qualities despite its Oregon location.

I've had one former student--the only one in history to transfer from De Anza College to Wesleyan--who wanted to attend an eastern school so he could find out what all the who-hah was about. He discovered, as a native Californian, he was something of a curiosity among his peers.

I'm suggesting there's a set of geographical issues here that Easterners who stayed East show little interest in.

Posted by: John at October 24, 2003 06:47 PM

In which case, the Canada discussion seems suddenly much more germane than I'd first thought. Interesting. Perhaps Michael E. Porter's work on geographical "clusters" and "The Competitiveness of Locations" in On Competition merits a look by disciplines other than economics.

Posted by: Mike at October 24, 2003 07:49 PM


I think you're perpetuating a needless class discussion here. You're clearly overgeneralizing, to say nothing of misreading my statements.

First off, I'm insulted that you automatically assume that just because I went there I belonged to some privileged class. A load of hogwash. Though my family was hardly what I'd call poor, I went to an inner city public school and did not in any way start from a privileged position at the starting gate when it came time to enter college. And, again, you are NOT listening to me. There was a much more significant proportion of students than you realize who came from even less well-off backgrounds than I did and truly had to jump through a lot of hoops regarding financial aid, work-study, etc. But that does not negate the fact that they went. I don't know where you got your facts from but, again, I went to one of the schools so believe I'm in somewhat better of a position to assess these things.

This garbage that a lot of people at state schools "can't" go to "elite" schools is incomprehensible. Indeed, many who had a choice between "state" and "elite" schools consciously chose the "elite" ones because they were QUALIFIED to do so intelectually and academically, REGARDLESS of their economic background. Don't you get it?

And I'm afraid that in this day and age, MD and JD degrees are not as "elite" as they used to be. Large numbers of students pursue those tracks out of the perception that society (and their parents) expect it, regardless of other aspirations they may have. The professions are becoming grossly oversubscribed. Most students who end up in them expecting a bed of roses end up finding nothing of the sort, and that's sadly getting more and more to be the case every day. At any rate, I don't see how those tracks are any less "vocational" than business/marketing tracks. You'll note from my posts that I hardly say that the new "vocational" emphasis at liberal arts schools is applied with the subtlety of a sledgehammer; I've been saying over and over that such trends are actually subtle and creeping up almost unnoticeably. The trends, though, indeed exist.

I'm getting to the point where I'm wondering what the heck you're talking about, other than needlessly fanning the flames of some pointless class argument that just isn't there as much as you think it is, and this sadly comes in the midst of what otherwise appears (as you even said) as a degree of convergence between what we've been saying. Whatever the institution, "state" or "elite", there's less and less emphasis anymore on encouraging students to broaden their minds through a liberal approach to education, and for that everyone should be concerned, regardless of what school we're talking about.

Posted by: Anon at October 25, 2003 06:23 PM

"history accounted for 2 percent of all bachelor's degrees." In 1970-71, by way of contrast, "history comprised more than 5 percent of the bachelor's degrees conferred."

In terms of absolute numbers, are there now more or fewer people receiving history degrees than there were 30 years ago? The percentage has gone down, enrollment has gone up - but how many history majors actually are there for those two periods?

Posted by: S. Worthen at October 26, 2003 12:52 PM

According to Townsend, there are now fewer people receiving history degrees: 25,070 in 2000-01, as compared to 44,663 in 1970-71. Thus, while enrollments have gone up, history has seen a decline in both relative and absolute terms over the past 30 years.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at October 26, 2003 08:11 PM

Interesting discussion, but it again illustrates why I have trouble spending any time at this site. So many people with a lot to say makes for a lot of material to wade through just for one post.

I came over based on a link Mike posted at Wealth Bondage, and I have found that Mike consistently has a lot of interesting an valueble things to say about class. As someone with a very much working/middle class background who attended a pretty elite institution I can say that these distinctions are important to understanding these things. Anon just doesn't get how self-selected the populations of these schools are, and that the few that aren't from wealthy families must have an outstanding academic record as well as a certain temperment to even be considered. These schools and the prep schools that feed them are an important part of who the wealthy transmit there class values to the next generation.

The geographical discussion introduced in late in the comments is interesting too, but I do think that the mid-western and Western counterparts try to emulate the power propagation structures of the Eastern schools, and are like the exceptions that prove the rule. I worked with a guy who had attended Carlton (Minnisota), and second hand I could tell that the intense intellectuallism of these environments is worthwhile for the students and binds them together in ways you might not expect at first. Carlton and Reed wouldn't have the same connections to old WASP money of Swath. and Am., but I think the motivation to found these institutions is actually to compete with the power connections of the more established Eastern elites. This is a process by which "new money" becomes "old money", and I might suggest that time frames and history are more important that geography in all of this.

My school, MIT, is a special case, but clearly the old-money elitism is at work here as well. A lot of it at MIT is connected to the "greek" system where around 50% of the student body lives in residence fraternaties. I learned the hard was that I was not invited to this club even though many of the fraternities sent me invitations to participate in rush week. They don't tell you why you aren't invited, the door is silently closed in your face.

Posted by: Gerry at October 27, 2003 12:14 PM

"Anon just doesn't get how self-selected the populations of these schools are, and that the few that aren't from wealthy families must have an outstanding academic record as well as a certain temperment to even be considered."

Of course I don't get it, I only went to one of them and knew there students from all walks of life. Silly me.

This is not the 19th century anymore. The most I will grant you is that maybe, just maybe, wealthier families have more knowledge about "elite" institutions just because of the information fed to them through their own social networks, and through the private schools that many of their children may attend. However, they do not make up as large a proportion of "elite" student bodies as most people think, and I'm getting tired of the black and white portrait that people are trying to paint here. With few exceptions, academic achievement and potential ARE the common denominators among students at "elite" schools, regardless of their economic/social background. With few exceptions, previous academic achievement MUST be demonstrated, no matter which high school you went to. "Certain temperament"? That's utterly insane. That may have been the case at one time (such as Ivy League schools before the '70s) but no longer. I've known, in fact, of many students from well-to-do families who - this may come as a shock to you - didn't end up in "elite" institutions. Wanna know why? THEY WERE NOT ACADEMIC ACHIEVERS! Enough said!

Posted by: at October 27, 2003 01:17 PM


Judging from Anon's all-caps screaming in response to our recent posts, I'd suggest that we seem to have touched a nerve. Despite his screaming, he seems to entirely fail to address your point about academic self-selection, which I would put into more blunt terms: economic factors go beyond just tuition, and have considerable influence on who even goes to college. As the NYU Department of Journalism puts it: "SAT scores today correlate closely with the family income of the test takers, according to the ETS' own data". But Anon uses his own experience -- "my family was hardly what I'd call poor" -- to contend that he "did not in any way start from a privileged position" and point out that "There was a much more significant proportion of students than you realize who came from even less well-off backgrounds than I did" ("even less well-off" than "hardly. . . poor"? :). While I've already pointed out that Swarthmore's stratospheric $36K tuition places it well above the $27K cutoff for the highest 4% of tuitions in the nation, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education, Anon contends (with others) that financial aid can take a big chunk out of this for a lot of students. So I had a look at the Swarthmore Web site. Sure enough: according to the Web site, "about 50%" of students receive financial aid, with an average award of roughly $25K. Anon's right, apparently: only half of Swarthmore students come from families wealthy enough to cough up $144,000 in four years. Only half of Swarthmore students come from families wealthy enough to cough up the entire amount of the American median net income each year for their kid to go to school. The other half, subtracting $25K from $36K, pays a scant $11K, or roughly $1000 more than the average out-of-state tuition at a public four-year college. So it would seem that half of Swarthmore's students, at least, are on equal footing with those who attend public colleges.

Until one considers the Chronicle's statistic that 46.4% of students at public four-year institutions receive financial aid, as well. In short: despite Anon's fatuous attempts to deny it, for which he can find only vague and unsubstantiated support from his own anecdotal experience, Amherst and Swarthmore are economically exclusive schools.

But Anon's primary message seems to be that wealth has no bearing on academic success; his rather tautological point is that academic success is the only thing that has an effect on academic success. In his all-caps screaming, he's taking strong exception to my argument that economic factors have considerable effect on academic success and that economic privilege translates into academic privilege and thereby into post-academic professional privilege. (Anon contends that "MD and JD degrees are not as 'elite' as they used to be", which would seem to beg the question: in terms of professions that one can enter straight out of higher education, what exactly is more "elite" in terms of economic advantage than being a doctor or a lawyer? Looking at the Department of Labor's Occupational Outlook Handbook, I'd answer: absolutely nothing. Perhaps Anon has a better answer.) Beyond this argument, I've also pointed out that "the way [this translation of economic privilege into other forms of privilege] interrupts America's self-deluding egalitarian narratives makes a whole lot of people uncomfortable, because if the system isn't fair, that might mean that the people in privileged positions had a lot of lucky breaks and didn't get into those privileged positions entirely on their own merits", but rather on the merits of how much money their parents had. Anon's furious and high-tempered denials that he bases on his own experience of "hardly what I'd call poor" parents and elite schooling would seem to entirely confirm this point.

And no matter how many sociologists and studies and statistics I cite, from the Chronicle of Higher Education, from the government, from the schools' own Web sites, Anon will continue to deny that economic factors have any influence on academic success. Anon's own experience is the only thing that matters in examining how privilege works in higher education, and in such a way Anon seems to perpetuate what Linda Brodkey, in her study of the problematic ways people from different class backgrounds miscommunicate in academia, calls the "class narcisssism that sees itself everywhere it looks" (646). For Anon, there's no other possible perspective.

Posted by: Mike at October 27, 2003 03:00 PM

Mike, you truly wear me down. It is utterly impossible to keep responding to someone like you, who clearly has way too much time on his hands and can keep constructing and reconstructing lengthy arguments that mischaracterize and misinterpret what I say, and throws around a lot of high-falutin' academic jargon to boot. ("Tautological"? Are you and other academics so utterly full of yourselves that you have to keep using $1000 words to artificially separate yourselves from the "hoi polloi"? Isn't that somewhat "elitist"?)

You are so utterly nitpicky that you have to pick up on every little detail of people's posts, never mind blow it way out of proportion. The use of quotations marks and capitals really hits a raw nerve with you. I hope you haven't suffered any permanent psychological damage as a result. And people wonder why academics are perceived as being so far out of the mainstream; as being excessively egomaniacal and insecure? What, if anything, are you doing to dispel that image?

I don't even know what your specialty is - I don't want to know - but academic self-importance has gone way too far, and perhaps it wouldn't be such a bad thing if certain PhD programs across the country that produce nothing anymore but irrelevant research and pure hot air would simply shut down. If there's nothing else of real value that I get from this entire blog site, it's the idea that sooner or later many academics may have to own up to the reality that they need to find jobs outside of the increasingly rareified and claustrophobic atmosphere of U.S. academia itself.

Everything I ever wanted to know about the current state of U.S. academia was conveyed by an individual I once met. It was nothing he said, just how he lived. An avowed "urban sociologist" who supposedly took a great interest in cities and taught at a big-city university, he nonetheless lived... in a nice, leafy-green suburb, far from the teeming masses of the city that he purported to be so highly qualified to research and study under a microscope like alien organisms. Wow. What an "urban" guy. And we honestly wonder why establishment liberals lose elections.

Posted by: at October 27, 2003 05:20 PM

Reading these posts, I am reminded of my mom's experiences when applying to colleges. As an immigrant's daughter whose family had no resources (this was 1949), she was told to apply to Vassar, Middlebury, Barnard and Cornell. She was told NOT to apply to public universities (in New York state) as they had very little scholarship money. She ultimately went to Vassar where her roommates included a fabulously wealthy Jamaican and another immigrants' daughter who was also on full scholarship.

Obviously, this was a long time ago but there still is an element of truth in this. I went to one of these elite small liberal arts colleges and my experiences were similar to my mom's. I knew very wealthy people and I also knew people who were on full scholarships. Altho' things have probably changed, freshmen and sophomores were not allowed to have cars (this was the late 1980s). I didn't know anyone who could afford a car! But lots of people from my high school went to the public university and rec'd, from their parents, a car in exchange. When I taught at public universities, I was always stunned by the number of cars my students had.

To say that people at Amherst, Swarthmore or (how abt it, guys!?), Williams are all from the upper class is extremely simplistic.

On the flip side, the issue of geography is huge. Altho' my college loved to boast that they had students from all 50 states, it was a strecth for them to get people from Wyoming, Montana, Alaska etc. Bright kids in the West and Midwest do tend to attend their state's public university---regardless of their financial background.

Posted by: at October 28, 2003 10:31 AM

#60 - Thank you for adding a measure of sanity to this debate. Your observations make a good deal of sense. I haven't said much about geography but I think you are correct, and I have nothing to dispute it. The small Eastern colleges we've been talking about indeed have very little name recognition out West. Not like the Ivies, anyway (which, in my opinion, are as deserving as anywhere of a reputation of superficial "networking" schools where people get jobs with Daddy's golf partners, but let's not even go there).

At any rate, statistics and high-falutin' sociological surveys are rather cold and meaningless in the absence of humanized, subjective information such as what you provide.

Posted by: Anon at October 28, 2003 11:20 AM

Anon: Sorry I do disagree with you about the bit about networking with Daddy's golf partners. I think that is very simplistic and wrong. While I knew many wealthy people as an undergrad and many scholarship people (as well as people like me, my parents went without a new car for more than 10 years to put all 4 of their children thro' an Ivy or one of the small elite schools mentioned in these posts), I never knew which person's family could do "something" for me and which family could not. As an undergrad, my boyfriend came from a fabulously wealthy family (non-American) but very few people knew the extent of his family's wealth or connections---no one would ever have used him as a network contact---he was probably the wealthiest (and for the Far East) best connected person I knew at the school. We dated for four years and are still in contact---he is never used as a networking source.

As a native Northeasterner, I'd also like to point out the culture of New England and the Northeast discourages people with a lot of wealth and connections from stressing their origins and so it may make it difficult for people to "network" at these schools (where the bulk of the student body is from the Northeast). Many people call New Englanders hypocrites as regards this issue of money but it makes it very difficult to network (more than half the time, I did not know whose family was well-connected and which family was wealthy).. The people I knew who were most upfront about their money and family connections came from Texas and Southern California. In view of this, I cannot help but wonder if the networking which you believe is endemic at small liberal arts colleges is not more common at places like U/Texas, Austin; Rice, UCLA and USC where the culture is more accepting of this type of behavior.

Posted by: at October 28, 2003 12:42 PM

#62 - OK... I think there might be a bit of confusion here; if anything I've been saying over and over again to others here that I _don't_ believe at all that the small liberal arts colleges are magnets for those who want to network. (It all started in much earlier posts; I certainly wouldn't expect you or anyone else by now to risk vision loss - or a lot of valuable time - reading through every single one.) To think that you can just go to one of those schols and by standing up open yourself to a plethora of networking opportunities is just silly.

Or maybe the confusion is about _who_ espouses the networking view; it was someone else who initially said that small liberal arts schools were associated with "networking". But I'm definitely with you on this one.

I guess my jab at the Ivies, if you want to call it that, in # 61 was not so much a broad proclamation that they are all "networking" schools but that if you're going to reflexively attach that label anywhere, that would be the first place - rightly or wrongly - that one might be inclined to attach it to. Of course the reality is very complex and labels don't serve any useful purpose, but I do feel that those schools, if anything, have a name recognition (far above and beyond that of smaller lib. arts schools) that can be attractive to those who are "networking-inclined". I probably should have been more clear. If anything, I think "networking" - for obvious reasons - is a lot more prevalent among members of closed societies at just about _any_ school, such as fraternities just about everywhere and the insular small clubs and secret societies at some Ivies in particular. This, I think, keys in to your observation about networking at larger schools in general. For what it's worth I know from friends who were in frats at large schools that, post-graduation, their frat represents above all else a "mega-", lifelong networking opportunity; I know for a fact that it's a prime vehicle for finding jobs.

At any rate, I agree w/ you wholeheartedly that it's not good to oversimplify when talking about any schools at all, and it was the oversimplified (and stereotyped) discussion of a school that I actually went to that caused me to start commenting in this thread in the first place.

Posted by: Anon at October 29, 2003 10:09 AM

#62 - Forgot to mention this; I do appreciate also what you said about how your college ed. was financed. There's this misconception that any parents who pay full-ticket or near-full-ticket for their kids' education at "elite" schools are automatically "wealthy", and spend their downtime hobnobbing with the Rockefellers and Kennedys. I've known numerous kids, in fact, whose parents scrimped and saved and cut every possible corner for years and years prior to their kids starting college (e.g., skipped vacations, lived in houses far cheaper than what they might otherwise be able to afford, stretched out - as you said - the service life of their cars), _just_ to be able to even _help_ finance a quality education while trying to avoid the circus of jumping through a lot of financial aid hoops.

As disgustingly expensive as schools are becoming, families who are by no means "wealthy" can and do find a way to pay for at least a large chunk of their kids' education. Squarely middle class folks are, hard as it is to believe, not incapable of consulting a financial advisor well in advance of their kids' college years in order to work out a plan. For anyone to even remotely imply that such advisors are the province of the "wealthy" is grossly inaccurate and, I dare say, insulting. Why do we go to such great lengths to underestimate the resourcefulness of "average" parents?

Such families indeed stand in stark contrast to the blue-bloods for whom the cost of a college education is like a trip to the supermarket for the rest of us. A distinction truly has to be made here; one, again, that cannot be rightfully ignored by painting a broad brush over large groups of people.

Posted by: Anon at October 29, 2003 10:29 AM

Anon: I apologize. I read the blog once and then went back quickly to skim it with the result that I confused you with Mike.

Two quick additions to my original comment: re: the financial sacrifices made by parents who send their children to private colleges. I feel very strongly about this! I was the youngest and so I watched my parents scrimp and save for years. It was extraordinarily difficult! I also know from the comments of close college friends that their parents did similar things. This was true---even of people whose parents were professionals. My dad was a small-town lawyer but neither he nor my mom inherited money of any kind from their parents (the reverse---my grandfather died with outstanding medical bills). I know of similar sacrifices. My college room-mate's dad was a physician who was determined to give his children a choice in their education (he came from a poor background and had attended state universities). He worked on Saturdays throughout her childhood to put money in his three children's college funds. I know many similar stories (another friend's dad left college teaching to work for industry so his children could attend the college of their choice).

Second: I also want to contextualize this discussion of "networking." The overwhelming majority of 18 year olds don't even know what this term means. I don't think it's a factor in their decision as to where they should go for college at all. And, perhaps I am wrong here, but I really don't think many parents push their children to attend specific colleges for this reason.

Posted by: Original Poster No. 60 at October 29, 2003 04:20 PM

Original 60 - Apology accepted. This thread (like others) is becoming like "War and Peace", so I certainly understand the problems of keeping track of who said what.

Thank you again for shedding further light on the reality of "wealthy" families who send their kids to private schools. Various anecdotes might not paint the whole picture, but they certainly add meaning and depth to what otherwise would be cold, lifeless statistics.

It's also interesting that you mention how many professionals such as lawyers and doctors - cited so often, including here, as being in an "elite" position in society - end up scrimping and saving for their kids like people in other lines of work. Again, one of the points I tried to get across here is that an MD or JD is not automatically a ticket to a comfortable upper-crust lifestyle (with maid service, a place in the Hamptons, etc.). That tends to be the reality for fewer and fewer in those professions anymore, so I continue to stand by the observation that small private colleges who encourage - subtly or otherwise - the development of more and more pre-meds and pre-laws are in fact contributing to an increasing "vocationalization" of those institutions. So many people pursuing those tracks either drop out along the way, switch careers after being burned out as a MD/JD for a few years, or end up in MD/JD careers that are not that glamorous or "lucrative" at all. It's all part of a disturbing trend where schools across the spectrum - large to small - are more and more becoming little more than increasingly clogged feeder chutes in enormous cattle drives.

I have to agree w/ what you say about networking; I do now wonder, like you, how many people consciously think about it, though I tend to believe that parents think about it more. I probably confuse it often, though, with the idea of pure name recognition and how it's the case that many buy into the idea of slapping a given school name on their resume to (supposedly) open the door to better opportunities in the future. That, I know, contributes to a lot of superficial and ill-informed matriculation decisions on the part of parents and students alike, and the issue then arises as to whether the "name" school in question actually possesses any substance that would be meaningful for a given individual student.

Posted by: at October 31, 2003 09:32 AM

Sorry - just to make it official, the last post was mine. - Anon

Posted by: Anon at October 31, 2003 11:06 AM

Re: professionals who scrimp and save to send their children to private colleges. I just want to point out that, to some degree, the burden falls very heavily on the physician, lawyer etc. These are the people whose children just miss being eligible for financial aid and so these are the ones who sometimes really have to make the sacrifice to pay what was, when I graduated, $20,000 plus a year just for one child's tuition (now it's even more, of course). My parents had four kids---we are separated by seven years total and so some years, my parents were paying two of these hefty bills of $20,000 or so. The same was true of many many of my friends (and that college roommate; she, her brother and sister are each separated by a year so there was a period when her dad was putting out about $60,000 a year on a physician's salary---this is not chump change and it required my family and hers to make a lot of sacrifices).

Posted by: Original Poster No. 60 at October 31, 2003 02:54 PM

Original 60 -

Good point; many professionals experience the "worst of both worlds" by making too much to qualify for a lot of aid, while making (way) too little for the costs _not_ to be an onerous burden. The price tags from 10-15 years ago were insane enough as it is; now they're an absolute insult to everyone's sensibilities. (In the amount of time that tuitions have doubled - even when adjusted for inflation, which still hasn't been a very long time - has the quality of education itself improved twofold? I don't think so!)

Posted by: Anon at October 31, 2003 03:09 PM

To "debunk" Mike a bit:

"I've been taking breaks over at the Invisible Adjunct's place again; as usual, the debates there get me thinking, but the Adjunct's a much more civil and generous respondent than Anon, who found himself so unable to respond to my debunking every single one of his arguments in this thread..."

WRONG. See any of posts 61+.

"...(basically, his position is that economic factors make no difference between schools like Swarthmore and Big State U)..."

WRONG. This vastly oversimplifies the complexity of what was actually said.

"...that he was reduced to name-calling..."

WRONG. No names were actually called. This coming from someone who feels free to label others as narcissistic (how ironic).

"At which point the discussion ceased to be interesting."

Hmmmm... "Ceased to be interesting" because he had no valid response to forward at that point...?

Posted by: at November 13, 2003 05:31 PM