A lot of the content but little of the rhetoric in Worthless can be found in articles like Jordan Weissmann’s “53% of Recent College Grads Are Jobless or Underemployed—How? A college diploma isn’t worth what it used to be. To get hired, grads today need hard skills,” which says:
not all degrees are created equal [. . . graduates in the] sciences or other technical fields, such as accounting, were much less likely to be jobless or underemployed than humanities and arts graduates. You know that old saw about how college is just about getting a fancy piece of paper?
Weissman is right; Clarey is right in places too, but even when he is mostly right, he overstates his case: the American education system has become like the proverbial elephant being described by blind men: one touches its tusk, and its trunk, a third its legs, and a fourth its back, and each proclaims that he understands the essential shape of the elephant, while none of them see the whole.
Derek Thompson describes the elephant problem in “The Value of College Is: (a) Growing (b) Flat (c) Falling (d) All of the Above.” The right answer is “d,” but even if the value of college is falling, it’s still an improvement, for most people, over not going to college. More people should probably major in science, technology, engineering, and math, as Clarey writes, but if your margin is between not going to college and entering the workforce straight from high school, or going to college and getting a comm or English degree, which is more valuable? To be sure, more people who are marginal candidates at colleges should consider vocational education, which Clarey says.
In an early passage, Clarey—who used to teach at a college—asks students to list what they want to buy. Most say gas, cars, or gadgets. He goes on to say that “there was a huge mismatch between what people wanted and what they were studying.” He’s partially correct. But he neglects to say that many people say they want one thing and then spend money on something else.
In the United States, for example, government expenditures consumed about 42% of GDP in 2012. Regardless of what this group of students say they want, voters in the aggregate want relatively high levels of government spending—and they get it. None of the students mentioned “thousands of dollars in subsidized debt,” even though many if not most are getting it. None mentioned health care, either, even though health care consumes a growing percentage of GDP. Clarey writes, “There was also no shortage of psychology majors, but not one person ever listed ‘therapy’ on their wish list.” But few people wish to admit in public, or to their instructor, that they want or need therapy, which doesn’t signal reproductive or intellectual fitness. The quoted sentence also doesn’t need the word “also,” which appears in the awkward first sentence of the preceding paragraph: “Also ironic was how there were so many sociology majors, but not one person listed ‘social work’ in their wish list.”
While I agree with part of the larger point—you should think about how the things you want to consume match with the things you are learning how to produce, and you should focus on making things that people want—people don’t always know what they want, or what they’ll pay for, and what they say they want and what they actually buy are often quite different. Whenever possible, shoot for observed rather than reported behavior. Americans are willing to say that buying American products are important to them, but very few actually take place-of-origin into account in actual purchases. Pay attention to those gaps. In his example, Clarey doesn’t.
There also appears to be a growing dynamic in this country by which people who work in highly competitive tradable sectors, like software and finance, support a large and growing non-tradable sector (baristas, yoga teachers, people dependent on Social Security / Medicare). Like any trend, this one might change, but it might also lead to the kinds of problems Tyler Cowen describes in The Great Stagnation.
Clarey writes that “You will inevitably work eight hours a day for 30-40 years. This will be, hands down, the single biggest plurality of your conscious time on this planet.” There are a couple of problems with this description: first, not everyone works for eight hours a day for 30-40 years. As Paul Graham observes in “How to Make Wealth,” “Economically, you can think of a startup as a way to compress your whole working life into a few years. Instead of working at a low intensity for forty years, you work as hard as you possibly can for four.” Beyond that, if you’re the kind of person who doesn’t spend a lot of money, you could conceivably work a normal job for a shorter period of time and then do something else; personally, I’d find idleness dull, but I suppose some people like it, or the idea of it. Stylistically, notice too the use of the cliche “hands down:” it adds nothing to the sentence. And notice too how he uses the phrase “plurality of your consciousness.” I’m not really sure how consciousness gets divided into pluralities; the usage note in the Oxford AMerican Dictionary distinguishes plurality from majority by saying, “A plurality is the largest number among three or more.” But what are your other “consciousnesses?” Clarey doesn’t say.
There are other moments of overstatement—like the next page, where Clarey describes how you will be working, and then says “How enjoyable and rewarding all of this is boils down to one simple decision – what are you going to major in?” Leaving aside the further use of cliche, I’m not convinced this is true: many if not most people end up working in fields unrelated to their major. I suspect that the pleasure or lack thereof in one’s work life depends on temperament, attitude, motivation, and a myriad of other factors unrelated to college major. The issue doesn’t boil “down to one simple decision”—it relates to a whole host of personal, social and economic factors.
He also writes that degrees like “Sociology” and “Non-profit Administration” “are in the financial sense LITERALLY worthless.” This doesn’t appear to be true, given the well-known data on earnings premiums to college degrees—many of which are linked to earlier in this post.
Still, Worthless excels at telling you what The Atlantic won’t: if you want to make a lot of money and a difference in people’s lives, major in STEM fields, but you’re probably reluctant to do so because you’re lazy and those fields are hard. They haven’t experience the same level of grade inflation as other fields. In this respect, the book is right. But it doesn’t excel in asking larger questions what kind of people major in each discipline and how many opportunities a degree—any degree—can still open. If you’re a generic student who isn’t especially passionate about anything and aren’t sure what you want to do, stay upwind. Increasingly, that means STEM. You can say it softly or brusquely and still get the same result.
But majoring in something you despise in pursuit of a paycheck might isn’t optimal either. In Bronnie Ware’s Regrets for the Dying, Ware, who worked in “palliative care,” lists the regrets she listened to patients express as they died. They said things like “I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me,” “I wish I didn’t work so hard,” and “I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.” In her telling, none say, “I wish I’d been a Senior Account Supervisor Level 5,” or “Making Executive Vice President was the apex of my life,” or “If only I’d been an engineer, everything would’ve been different.”
This isn’t argument against majoring in the hard sciences, since no one is stopping engineers or hackers from working less hard or expressing their feelings. But it is an argument about the value of a life as measured in non-financial terms, and attempting to measure life in solely financial terms might yield a less than optimal return on investment. Daniel Gilbert’s book Stumbling on Happiness offers an enormous amount of research that shows how most people do not become substantially happier when they earn additional income beyond $40,000 per year, and most of them value meaningful work, their sex lives, and friends much more than extra marginal income. Again, I’m not arguing against majoring in STEM fields, but if your sole purpose in majoring in a STEM field is to maximize your lifetime earning potential, you might be maximizing the wrong thing. If you major in something easy because it’s the default path, you’re making a mistake. But if you want the easy route, I don’t think Worthless is going to convince you to avoid that route, even if its content will let you avoid saying, “No one told me.”
Arguing in favor of majoring in STEM fields might sound ironic coming from an English major and now English grad student like me, but I do so largely based on the observation of the life trajectories of the people around me. You can find innumerable arguments for liberal arts degrees—here’s a recent one, from Stanley Fish at the New York Times—but very few get around the income data problem combined with the rising cost of degree problem, let alone the way technology is ripping up and reshaping large parts of human life—which history, English, and philosophy aren’t doing (I’d argue that economics, neuroscience, and biology are doing more to shape the way we think about human behavior than history, English, philosophy, and the rest of the humanities; why argue about human nature when you can try to measure it?*).
Still, if your mostly view a degree as a signaling device—as Bryan Caplan does, and as he’s going to argue in The Case Against Education (you can read more about the ideas on his blog), then what you major in doesn’t matter that much because you’ve already signaled that you’re diligent and conscientious. In many fields, if you’re any good, you’ll be able to teach yourself those fields: there are numerous people working as programmers with little or no formal training in programming. Ditto for business; indeed, no one in my family had any formal training in any aspect of business, yet we’ve been running Seliger + Associates for decades; watching the experience of many tech entrepreneurs makes me skeptical of the value of formal business training that is devoid of content from the business one presumably wants to enter. I read stories like “Patagonia’s Founder Is America’s Most Unlikely Business Guru: For years, Yvon Chouinard kept his eco-conscious, employee-friendly practices largely to himself. Now megacorporations like Walmart, Levi Straus and Nike are following his lead” and wonder what the homo economicuses are learning in B-school.
In dealing with life, rather than just your major, a more viable book might be something like Po Bronson’s What Should I Do With My Life?, which is less didactic and certain—although it is also vague, wishy-washy, and overly long. It might have pointed out that, if you are defined primarily by external structures and expectations instead of an inner quest for growth, knowledge, and understanding, you will probably never be able to accomplish the kinds of things you should. For people externally motivated, hard degrees are especially important, because they’re not going to pick up a copy of Learn Python the Hard Way and learn Python the hard way. They’re not going to take charge of a business and figure out how to lead from the front.
If you find work that you love, it doesn’t really feel like work. Perhaps more people should work on finding that, if they can—not everybody can—and then seeing if they can extract money from what they like doing (see also Robin Hanson’s short post on the subject).
Are you better off reading this book, or reading links above? The answer depends on the extent you value judiciousness versus the extent you value someone telling you what to do without exploring the nuances inherent to the situations. I did not notice any sentences that were beautiful, moving, or surprising. Many needed basic copy editing (sample: “You would obviously like to choose a field that you have an interest in” should be “You would obviously like to choose a field that interests you”), and the book works best if you don’t read it closely, which reinforces the question I posed in the first sentence of this paragraph. Nonetheless, Worthless is a symptom of larger problems in American education, and I expect those symptoms to get worse before they get better.
* Not everything can be measured, but given the choice between measurement and not, shoot for measurement.