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July 19, 2004


The Angry Clam

There's a reason I went to law school.

A degree in classical languages is even less useful, from a practical standpoint, than in English.

My suggestion to all the kids out there- get a degree in business. Not economics, but business. It isn't a terribly difficult degree path (compared to, say, engineering), it gives you a definite skill set, and the requirements are usually light enough that you can minor or double major in something you'd like to do in addition to it.

If I had to do it all over, the double major or minor route is the one that I'd take.

That said, I agree with Hugo that JCs aren't as shameful as people make them out to be. However, there are problems with them, primarily that students from more privileged backgrounds who attend them tend to become the sixth or seventh year student, never transferring, and always living at home on their parents' dime. I know a lot of these people from my own (private) high school who are still in JC, while I'm a year away from a law degree.

Point is, make sure your child is motivated enough to really work for that transfer to a UC. Otherwise, you and they are probably better off spending the additional money to send them to a CSU right off the bat, so that there's a little less of a chance of falling through the cracks.

The Angry Clam

Fuller disclosure: I was accepted into some pretty nifty classics Ph.D. programs, but decided against those due to the utterly dismal career prospects in the field.

I'm now enough of a sucker to be considering the legal equivalent of graduate school: clerking and then, possibly, an LL.M. degree.

Some of us never quite learn.


Follow your bliss does work as advice, if the person has enough passion. I believe you can do anything if your passion will drive you when the going gets rough. I think very few people are that passionate about their chosen field, however. Not to mention the key factors of motivation and talent. Just don't tell them to get a teaching degree as a back-up plan. Bleah. Too many of those out there already.

Joe G.

Yet another great post, Hugo. I appreciate your honesty: it makes for a refreshing, thoughtful blog-reading experience. Really!

I'm somewhere in the middle of your experience: I'm the first in my family to go to college, yet we weren't so poor that I had to avoid going to a state college for my BA. These days I work with all sorts of students from all sorts of backgrounds. And I try to be honest while also being hopeful.

I also think that it just takes so much more to get ahead in academia. In social work, the master's level degree is THE degree to get; forget the BSW. And now, most colleges and universitiest that have MSW programs expect all of their faculty to have the Ph.D. or DSW. The days of teaching with "only" a masters degree are long gone.

Hence, to do "anything" with a degree requires more education along with the understanding that some careers pay substantially more than others, and some career paths carry a heavier risk of not being able to find a desireable job.


I am laughing at (or perhaps troubled by) Angry Clam's comments, because I was going to comment basically the same thing. I graduated with a degree in Sociology (which was practically the equivalent of a general liberal arts degree), which was the recommended course for me from my "academic advisor" at college. I wish I had earned a general business degree instead, because unless you specialize with something such as engineering, a general business degree will open many more doors and be very much more marketable than a general liberal arts degree. I really question why every student who is unsure of the path to take isn't directed towards business. Given the poor advice I received, my degree got me absolutely nowhere...I ended up waitressing at a local pub for a few years before attending law school -- which was sort of an I-really-don't-have-anything-else-to-do-with-my-intelligence decision. I had taken a graduate literature course and it was just dreadful, so law school, as strange as it sounds, was sort of a last resort. I seem to be one year ahead of Angry Clam's plans, as I have just received my law degree, am clerking starting this fall, and probably will go back for my LLM after that.

I wonder how my career would have unfolded if I had received thoughtful, reasoned advice from my advisor, instead of the regurgitated drivel that is spewed to every student.


Lots of food for thought here, and no easy answers.

I was an English major. I do believe that my liberal education has enriched my life. Not to mention made me a killer Jeopardy player. But I agree that with students in general, and perhaps most especially with students such as yours, the argument in favor of a liberal education becomes really hard to make with a straight face.

It's another of those points on which I worry that we are all evolving in the wrong direction, but powerless to do anything about it.


I got very little help from my college mentors--it didn\'t help that they were largely tenure-track academics in *the* Ivory Tower and tended to look at work in terms of \"just go to grad school if it doesn\'t work...\" When I ended up waitressing in Chicago after I graduated, unable to find work for a number of reasons (economy, major, wrong city for non-profit jobs, and unwillingness to commit to Chicago), I felt the squeeze of my major. English wasn\'t going to get me a job, and I had barely enough professional creds in viable fields to get entry-level work.

Now two years out of college, and happily doing something non-standard and looking at further non-standard moves in the future, I nonetheless am far more aware of what it would take for me to get a substantial job in the States with my degree--a lot more leg work, networking, and self-hyping than anyone told me I\'d need to do, and in large part because I have an unmarketable degree. (But I did love it, passionately, and continue to. I don\'t regret my major at all, and I consider the tradeoff of hard work to get a job a necessary evil of doing what I love.)


I was very fortunate to have the meanest advisor who ever lived. He sat me down and very bluntly told me that he “saw” me. I wasn’t teacher material. I really didn’t believe him and still dreamed of an office in the English Dept, the one right by the arches of the rose garden. But I added a second major in business just in case. An MBA, JD and Ph.D. later, I am one of new breed of Business Profs who work full time in various industries and teach part time in cohort business programs. I teach by Socratic method for the ½ of class and then practical application for the ½. When students ask questions about what occurs in the real world, I tell them from my experience in it. I also serve as an advisor. I have become the meanest advisor I know. I let students know that this is a different market than a mere five years ago. When the current programs finish, they will be looking at jobs managing a Gap, not being recruited by Silicon Valley.

But my favorite professors remain those that seem to have never been touched by the “real world.” Dr.s Griesinger, Carlsson, Esselstrom, I love them still. There is an ethereal quality about them; they have an optimism and idealistic nature that can only be nourished in an academic world. Dr. Griesinger and I have been discussing Frankenstein as a Christian and/or feminist work since 1989! I try to see them a couple of times a year for coffee, biscotti and the most wonderful discussions about literature and life. I would not be the same person without them; my life would not be what it is today if not for them. They taught me how to think, feel and embrace as an adult with both logic and passion. My business education taught me how to work; my liberal arts education taught me how to live.


Once again, black coffee, you put things beautifully. Thank you. That's really rather comforting!

david galvez

Mr. Hugo gives a very watered down version of Liberal Arts studies and does a nice job of blatantly admitting his elitist attitude. The study of English and other Liberal Study Programs were historically meant for the lower ecehelon of society. The study of English was initially instituted at Mechanic's College in England. The idea was that the lower rung of scoiety could be saved and taught to be civil beings through the study of Literature. English was not considered an Academically rigorous field of study because all English gentleman read their Literature regularly without the need for a class. Liberal Arts have failed to embrace the present and future and are mired in "Tradition". People who study these subjects have no one else to blame, but themselves for failing to embrace the present and future. Consumerism has nothing to do with the need for a "Job". I would gladly be homeless if the social stigma attached to it was absent. It won't work. The police, teachers, parents, etc. will run you out. This is occurring in Venice Beach. Wealthy homeowners want to run out what they see as stains on their community i.e the homeless and dejected. The necessity for work is real and liberal arts won't put food on the table, a roof over your head, or a woman on your arm. As far as Mr. Hugo's elitist attitude is concerned I'm sure it is obvious in his interactions with students. Mr. Hugo you're a Professor at a Community College where students simply want an opportunity for a "better life" a notion of which is perpetuated by Liberal Art Departments. You claim to be a christian. Maybe you should try to be a bit more humble and express a bit of empathy for those who don't have the luxuries that you were lavished with. I think that you will never be able to comprehend nor empathize with those who come from poverty, violence, etc. Because you have never known what it is like to experience it. You probably will never know. From your Blogs I can sense that your position at the Community College did not come by chance or luck. You never had a doubt that you would get a poshy position as a professor at a Community College or University. It was something that you knew was going to happen regardless.



I liked this post, different from some of your usual. I have actually thought of quitting school for academic reasons. Skills seem to be the more marketable positions and I fear I would be being irresponsible, with regards to my wife and two kids, for not pursuing the more financial lucrative options.

It is sad to have to reconcile this dichotomy. My first love was literature, even though I truly haven’t the skills to comprehend or write intelligently on the subject. My first vocation was patternmaking, this is now a trade on its deathbed, however I loved the challenge of its requirements and working with wood. I believe I have jumped around in vocations due to this enervating dichotomy—constantly wanting both sides.

Now I find myself on a third attempt to return to school and the complications of this are going to be my defeat. Financial aid is an uphill battle for one who works. Not being a minority or a single parent also has its downfalls with regards to financial assistance. Married with kids, working, and pursuing an education are not a concoction for success. Four of the past six classes/instructors that I have had were poor, with the latest instructor, Uranga, being the worst I have ever encountered. I do not agree with your notions of tenure, this being the case.

Quite frankly, I feel there is no one to discuss this with, due to some of the same reasons you allude to. Currently my younger brother is attending graduate school at CGU. He also was married with two children and received his B.A. in three years, albeit due to the assistance of the G.I. Bill and living in Cedar City, Ut. (rent on his three bedroom home was $500 compared to my $1250 two bedroom home). Ironically he is debating dropping out of school for the same reasons only at a higher level…he is a political science/ international relations major. I find myself telling him to continue in face of the financial difficulties of being divorced etc.

I want to embrace academia, but as I have told you before, the pragmatist in me makes this difficult and conservative minded folks aren’t much appreciated in the classrooms of today—especially in the liberal arts. Pursuing this route would truly be a labor of love.



I took the JC track: attended PCC for two years and transferred to Cal, where I got my degree in English. Among recent graduates in my age group, there is a huge sense of disillusionment, as if all the ideas and ideals we were ever fed in academia have little bearing in our post-collegiate lives, and for that matter, in the world around us. My liberal arts education is far from useless; in fact, it was formative. But nothing in academia can duplicate the earth-shattering reality check that is life and mediocrity. I wonder if it could have happened any other way. Perhaps if the blow were dealt sooner.

But there is value in dreaming and everyone needs room to dream. Where else can you get away with "relentless optimism," if not in school? To quote Emily Dickinson, "I dwell in Possibility-- / A fairer House than Prose -- / More numerous if Windows -- /Superior-- for Doors" Poetry, like dreams, may not have much practical application, but life just wouldn't be as rich without.

No mentor of mine ever said it was going to be easy, I'll give them that much. Of course, it's harder than I expected, but I'm not done dreaming yet.


I guess I have somewhat of a different experience from many who have responded. I started out in business, but I had no heart for it; to pacify my yearnings, I double-majored for a time in English, but eventually I dropped down to just English. I left school in the recession of the early '90s and really struggled for about a year afterwards. Then I fell into technical editing and eventually made my way into technical writing. I never dreamed or desired to be writing about computer software for a living, but I'm very grateful for my job. Most technical writing jobs are now filled by liberal arts majors.

My parents repeatedly warned me that I'd starve if I were an English major, while my academic advisors assured me that you never read newspaper articles concerning such a thing.

What would I advise my kids, if I had any? Go ahead and major in the liberal arts if you want to; just be prepared that you may well have to do some work as to how you're going to turn your experience into a job. (If I could pay for their education, I would be willing to fund a liberal arts degree if that was where their talent and heart were.) It can be done, but it won't necessarily be easy. A corollary would be to know yourself -- you may desire more assurance that you'll get a reasonably well-paying job, in which case you may want to get a degree in something more "practical." There's nothing wrong with making that choice either.

Peace of Christ,

Jonathan Dresner

I think Chip's comment comes the closest to hitting the mark: the popular fallacy is that college is about creating immediately professionalized careerists, and anyone who doesn't succeed directly out of college is a failure, and that failure reflects on the college curriculum and teaching. But colleges and universities do not train people for every job, nor are most curricula arranged in a coherent enough fashion that we can strongly claim to be rigorously teaching "skills." But a basic liberal arts education (and that includes, by the way, science and social science majors) is an exercise in drawing out and building up potential that must then be put to good use by the graduate.


And if I had to do it all over again, I'd major in English in a heartbeat, but without all of the worrying about getting a job (and without the business route). I have no regrets whatsoever about my major.

It's often (usually?) better, I think, for someone to major where he or she has talents and desires but that doesn't lead directly into a career rather than go into something in which he or she isn't gifted but which is more practical. Again, you may have to figure out how to turn your skills into a job afterward, but as Jonathan said, that's not the university's job. If it comes with the territory of your major, then that's what you have to face.

Peace of Christ,


Jeez. Now the stirring pitch for liberal education I give at the end of every semester is revealed for the cheap, self-serving advertisement it is. I'm in an unusual situation myself; the son of working-class high-school graduates, with the highest education of anyone in my immediate or extended family, I attended a private university with scholarship money and worked through graduate school as a teaching assistant, so I've never had a student loan and remain proudly debt-free. I've not yet been an official adviser, but every professor has students come to him/her for advice, and I've said much the same thing -- study what you love, and don't be concerned about the money. But to me, it's just a sort of restatement of Christ's advice, "consider the lilies of the field." It's a mouthful to tell someone who is only in college because her parents have pushed her or because he only wants a high-paying job when he gets out. (precisely the way many think of it, as escape). The days of liberal arts education are dying, it seems, but I have no other choice but to hold on to it. It's the boat I've chosen. If it sinks, I go with it.


What a great discussion - I have a BS in Business/Accounting, although I started as a Political Science major, my dad said get something you can get a job with! With my degree and experience I was able to negiotate a job with one of the Big Four and ended up dealing with all the difficult clients. I was on a "contribute and stay" basis, and worked 70% time, more during busy season and banked the hours to take off during the summer, when my children were out of school. When I became a single mom, I saw my dad's advice as a blessing. I could support my sons and still have time to be a mom. It's a hard choice, though. given what I know now, I wish I would have double majored.

Accounting may have paid the bills, but I forced myself to get to work almost every morning.


Peter Kramer's Should You Leave? is an extended meditation on giving advice. It gave me a saner perspective when I was advising undergraduates.

Col Steve

Hugo - the self-flagellation aside, the answer to your comment, "And I wonder, as Benton wonders, whether all of that encouragement and advice does any good" is of course it does. It's a mistake for a mentor to be reluctant in sharing what worked for them or be offering guidance based on "protecting" the person asking for advice.

But as other have noted, there are some implied hurdles between do what you love and the money will follow. The mentor should point those out, but as Jonathan Dresner noted, it's still the responsibility of the individual to weigh carefully the advice given and put it in context with an honest assessment of one's motivation, talent, ambitions, lifestyle choices, and a multitude of other factors.

A recent HR manager of a large business here in No VA said something to the effect that she would rather have a non-business college (or JC) graduate that could show up on time, dressed appropriately, write and speak effectively, follow directions with minimal guidance, and frame problems even if the experience and knowledge levels may not allow the person to solve the problem as opposed to the business major with a grade inflated degree from a high profile university who thought simply having resume entry was sufficient to get the position.

So while I agree with a lot of what Chip and Jonathan wrote, I believe academic institution can take some actions to help students such as halting grade inflation, keeping current with business trends and having a mix of faculty with "practical" experience (a la blackkoffeeblues) so departments can tailor courses, and perhaps having more required courses across the educational landscape (although I'm biased based on my own undergraduate experience that required multiple courses in history, philosophy, econ/poly sci/IR, psychology, literature, foreign language, and geography in addition to the math/science/engineering courses).

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