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You Want Fries With That?

May 19th, 2009 · 22 Comments

Guesting over at Sully’s, Lane Wallace recounts how a crappy job taught him the value of a liberal arts education:

In a flash, I grasped the true value of a college degree. It didn’t matter what I majored in. It didn’t even matter all that much what my grades were. What mattered was that I got that rectangular piece of paper that said, “Lane Wallace never has to work in a corrugated cardboard factory again.” A piece of paper that was proof to any potential future employer that I could stick with a project and complete it successfully, even if parts of it weren’t all that much fun. A piece of paper that said I had learned how to process an overload of information, prioritize, sort through it intelligently, and distill all that into a coherent end product … all while coping with stress and deadlines without imploding.
To be sure, a college degree of some sort is a good investment if you want to end up doing interesting, remunerative work, but if you’re primarily concerned about making bank, you’re probably better off sticking with business or sciences, even if you’re more passionate about semiotics. So I think Wallace actually gets it backwards here: The great value of a liberal arts education is that it prepares you to be relatively happy even if you find yourself working in a corrugated cardboard factory. Partly because books are cheap, and cultivating the ability to take great pleasure in a well-crafted novel lowers you hedonic costs down the road. But more broadly because the liberal arts might be descibed as a technology for extracting and constructing meaning from the world. If you know your Hamlet, you know that’s all the difference between a prisoner and a king of infinite space.

Tags: Academia · Art & Culture · Language and Literature



22 responses so far ↓

  • 1 LP // May 19, 2009 at 11:53 am

    “[…] the liberal arts might be descibed as a technology for extracting and constructing meaning from the world.”

    Where were you when I was trying to explain to my family why, exactly, I was switching my major from chemistry to philosophy?

  • 2 Bitter Guy // May 19, 2009 at 3:16 pm

    Actually, I think having a degree just makes the cardboard box factory worse. After all, now you’re a guy wit a degree who can’t find a better job than in a factory. You’re an abject failure, IOW.

    Look, I love the life of the mind as much as anyone. But my advice to college kids is simple: think money and career. You can give yourself a liberal arts education with an investment of time, a library card, and some book money. While paying for a degree, go for what pays. Period.

    *Transmitted from deep in the bowels of a job not unlike employment in a box factory.

  • 3 Julian Sanchez // May 19, 2009 at 5:12 pm

    I don’t know… I get by fine, but certainly don’t have the kind of near-term earning prospects many of my peers who opted for MBAs or JDs can expect. But it would never occur to me to want to take any of it back. At the risk of undermining future salary negotiations, I’m not sure what I’d do with a *lot* more money than I was making at Ars, and I doubt very much I’d be happier as a wealthy attorney (say), even though I find the law interesting and could imagine myself doing that.

  • 4 Bitter Guy // May 19, 2009 at 5:51 pm

    Julian- Imagine a pro football player saying “Well, betting everything on sports worked for me.” That’s kind of the position you’re in. You make reasonable (but not lavish, I’m sure) amounts of money to think and write about interesting stuff. For writers and PoliSci/Phil type people, that’s the equivalent of making it into the pros. Not many have the talent and opportunity to get where you are.

  • 5 Nayagan // May 19, 2009 at 9:10 pm


    For someone looking to pay off a not-terrible debt load, the BA is of the material significance that Lane described and the ‘stones to cultured soup’ significance of your post. I majored in history and found myself in the least stodgy of insurance jobs–it’s certainly a kind of quiz-show challenge but not exactly engaging all my ‘senses.’ This, to me, seems a sensible exchange–I make the company tons of money (subject to loss development over a certain time period), putting forth something less than 50% of my personal productive capacity and they pay me enough and more to live 10x better than I did as a college student and address that debt load aggressively.

    (and Lane Wallace is female)


  • 6 Lester Hunt // May 19, 2009 at 9:16 pm

    I teach philosophy so I admit I am prejudiced, but I strongly suspect that the two subjects my students most often study out of a desire to be “practical” are not that practical: namely, business and law. A business degree may be necessary if you want to work for a large corporation, but in small business most of what you do in B-school is a big waste of time and money. Take a couple of accounting courses — and major in something that you find interesting. As to law school, boy, don’t get me started. As everybody knows, lawyers are the poorest profession, and that’s partly because way, way too many people had the supposedly-clever idea of going to law school — and you are competing with all of them. For most of the jobs that call for a college degree, I don’t think they care all that much what the degree is in. For that sort of job, this Lane Wallace person had it exactly right. One big exception to this of course is education. If you want to teach in a public school, you have to suffer through E-school. But I’d rather be waterboarded. Literally.

  • 7 Greg N. // May 19, 2009 at 11:20 pm

    I went to law school, decided I didn’t want to practice, and became a teacher instead (didn’t take a single education course in college, by the way). I’ve traded money for free time and hanging around ideas in some capacity (and teaching some good kids some useful stuff along the way). I’m convinced I’m much happier than many of my big-firm friends who bill 2,000 hours a year and bitch in 6-minute increments of misery the entire time. And I’m SURE I’ll be happier starting June 4, after which I won’t report to work again for 9 weeks or so.

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  • 9 Andy // May 20, 2009 at 11:40 am

    My grandmother had two observations about education — not about a liberal arts education specifically, but I think they apply to those very well:

    An education is what you have left once you forgot everything you learned.

    The purpose of an education is to keep from boring yourself.

  • 10 M. // May 20, 2009 at 1:41 pm


    This brings to mind two authors I recently encountered who discuss the value of a liberal arts education, and provide some insight on the nature of work in our times.

    In his new book, Shop Class as Soul Craft, U of Chicago Political Philosopher turned motorcycle repair man, Michael Crawford, argues that much of what many young professionals consider desirable employment (analyst positions, junior executives, sales associates, law, etc.) has undergone a transformation that, on a cognitive level, makes the day-to-day tasks of these “professions” little different than the soul crushing assembly line monotony of Lane Wallace’s cardboard factory.

    Also, another Wallace (who Lane references in her piece in the context of a a LAE’s value for discerning ambiguity in a complex world, but whose position was far more nuanced and personal), the late David Foster Wallace, had perhaps the most profound insight, which he delivered to the Kenyon University class of 2005 in the commencement:

    “It isn’t really about the capacity to think, but rather about the choice of what to think about.”

    For Wallace, it isn’t simply knowing your Hamlet, and it certainly isn’t a prescription for happiness. It’s about cognitive freedom. The freedom to take mundane, lonely, boring, potentially soul-crushing day-to-day experiences (which, like Crawford, Wallace pretty much presents as the status quo) and being able to choose amongst better ways to process this reality. More human and generous ways. Less self-centered. Ultimately, both Crawford and Wallace are idealistic moralists that present the ultimate value of a LAE as being the fact that it gives it’s recipient the mental firepower to reject, as Wallace puts it, the “default settings” that most of us fall prey to — whether in work, or everyday interactions with eachother. In other words, the greatest value of a LAE is its ability to change individuals by giving them avenues (mental or professional) that differ from the status quo.

  • 11 bsci // May 20, 2009 at 1:52 pm

    But more broadly because the liberal arts might be descibed as a technology for extracting and constructing meaning from the world

    To me that also sounds like a great definition of science. Putting this definition as the sole benefit of liberal arts puts the defense of liberal arts on very weak footing. This is value to liberal arts, but that value needs to be explained without assume anyone who doesn’t have a B.A. can’t construct meaning from the world and can’t read literature or “truly” comprehend Hamlet.

  • 12 Susan // May 20, 2009 at 2:03 pm

    Didn’t George Orwell say something along the same lines in “Down and Out in Paris and London”? I can’t remember the wording, but he remarked on being able to provide his own mental entertainment when locked up due to having read extensively.

  • 13 Scott // May 20, 2009 at 3:08 pm

    @Bitter Guy

    You wrote: “Look, I love the life of the mind as much as anyone. But my advice to college kids is simple: think money and career. You can give yourself a liberal arts education with an investment of time, a library card, and some book money. While paying for a degree, go for what pays. Period.”

    I couldn’t disagree more. I double-majored in theatre and philosophy in college because I liked theatre and philosophy. I was paying, so I went for what I enjoyed.

    I know I needed to pay the bills after college, though, so I taught myself how to be a pretty damn good programmer (it’s all out there on the internet; all you need is an investment of time, a computer and an internet connection) and was making six figures by the age of 23.

    My life now consists of traveling around the world, writing and playing guitar on faraway beaches with pretty girlfriends and picking up an occasional freelance programming gig when I need some dough. It’s not bad.

    My advice to you: stop dispensing bad advice to college kids.

  • 14 Bitter Guy // May 20, 2009 at 3:37 pm

    Scott-I’m willing to bet you had a few things going for you-namely talent and luck. You need both to get anywhere, and betting that they will be there is not the best move for most people.

  • 15 Ben // May 20, 2009 at 5:01 pm

    “Lawyers are the poorest profession”?

    Julian, did you want to do what you are doing or something related in college? That’s the biggest question for me. If someone is completely aimless in college, I’d advocate that they at least get a degree or take classes that indicate they aren’t scared of numbers. That should help them in the battle for better cube jobs.

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  • 17 willybobo // May 20, 2009 at 11:50 pm

    The biggest thing that Lane overlooks is that the security she’s gained against the possibility of a life inside a cardboard box factory comes not from the fact that she got a degree, but that she got a degree from Brown. If you go to an elite school, indeed the chances that you’ll end up in a factory of any kind are effectively nil, unless that’s what you choose.

    If you go to Brown, or Yale, or Chicago, or Stanford, indeed you’re probably better off choosing to pursue a liberal arts degree, because it often helps you speak more articulately and confidently in interviews for investment banking, hedge fund, and consulting jobs. And you’ll seem more interesting.

    If, though, you’re not quite so lucky as to wind up at an elite school by which your very affiliation opens up doors to any kind of career you’d like…if you instead are among the majority who has chosen to attend college at California State Hayward or Southwestern Illinois State or Estrella Mountain Community College, then acquiring skills that are of immediate utility to average employers in need of a mass of average employees is often the only hope of avoiding the box factory. Learning to close read Weber or argue against a phenomenological interpretation of a social norm is not, unfortunately, typically as useful to the average corporation as knowing how to write Java code or to prepare a cash flow statement or to deploy a server side security key.

  • 18 Doug // May 21, 2009 at 4:41 pm

    It was a job working 8pm-8am alone on the top floor of a six-story tower spreading pesticides on seed corn (but without long, flowing locks) that convinced me to get a degree in economics. The education in economics convinced me not to pursue a money-driven career. Becoming the chief executive of a social service agency convinced me that commenting on blogs is my highest calling.

  • 19 Gil // May 22, 2009 at 2:03 pm

    I think the education itself is a terrible deal. Very few people who weren’t already interested in reading and ideas will get changed by college.

    But, the experience of spending time with other bright young people (and some good professors) and figuring out how to interact successfully with them is valuable. It’s a good way to spend some time if you don’t know what you want to do to earn money (or aren’t ready to start).

    I hope new institutions evolve that let young people get that benefit, and a way to signal to prospective employers what talents they have, without spending outrageous amounts of money.

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  • 21 wonkie // May 28, 2009 at 11:30 am

    I have three university degrees and I have happily worked in blue or pink collar jobs most of my life. I actually enjoy the kind of job that requires little of my attention because it gives me space to think. In fact, I wrote two novels in my head while driving …and wrote them down as soon as I got home.

    Of course, that sort of life sytle is not renumerative, but I didn’t need to make much money since I was married to a college drop out who had a very well paid union job.

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