I am not generally a humorless academic, and I do
not mind poking fun at myself and the things I care about. I have seen the
following joke at least one too many times, however, and cannot help but
comment on its assumptions. Most recently, it appeared in the December 6,
2003 Brockton Enterprise, a local
paper with a mixed record of covering public higher education.
Having heard this many times, and being in the
business of helping students receive a liberal-arts education, I must risk
being a grouch and discuss the serious implications of the joke. It reflects
a venerable anti-intellectual tradition in the United States, a tradition
I view as poisonous.
- A graduate with a science degree asks, "Why
does it work?"
- A graduate with an engineering degree asks,
"How does it work?"
- A graduate with an accounting degree asks,
"How much does it cost?"
- A graduate with a liberal arts degree asks,
"Do you want fries with that?"
I have not made a formal study of anti-intellectualism in the United States,
but as a casual observer I attribute it to several factors. First -- and
this is perhaps too easy for me to say -- it is a bit of sour grapes. If
one is not part of the intellectual elite, the next best thing to be is dismissive
of it. Second, it is in the interest of those with great economic and political
power to encourage the distrust of intellectuals. This is because intellectuals
-- although they can be of any political stripe -- have a tendency to ask
uncomfortable questions about the ways society operates.
Whatever the causes of anti-intellectualism, it is particularly pernicious
for working-class students who are seeking to improve their lot in life
through higher education. I have been just such a person, as are the vast
majority of my students. Actually, this is not quite accurate: I pursued
a liberal-arts education just because I wanted to; the career benefits came
on their own, somewhat later. The reason that jokes such as "College Grads"
are pernicious is that it tends to confirm a misplaced fear that many working-class
students and their parents have: college education is a waste of money,
unless each day's lesson can be connected to something that will be needed
on the job some day.
Students -- and even some professors, believe it or not! -- object to liberal-arts
courses that are not tied to a vocation. For students pursuing a major in
such fields, the pressure from family members and peers can be intense:
"What are you going to do with a degree in history?" (or English, or music,
or philosophy, or geography)
The joke has an element of truth: Students in certain fields can easily
find jobs that "match" their degrees. The employment ads are full of jobs
for engineers and accountants, but a geography graduate is wasting her time
turning to the "G" section of the want ads! The entry-level options for liberal-arts
graduates are not obvious; some creativity is required. (In recent years,
geographers have gained a slight advantage over other liberal-arts graduates,
as many organizations have discovered the value of GIS - geographic information
Even though the want ads are not full of listings for "philospher," "historian,"
or "musicologist," long-term career prospects for liberal-arts graduates
are quite good. The skills of reasoning, writing, and thinking are always
in demand. Even if the career path includes a few burger-flipping
jobs along the way, liberal-arts graduates tend eventually to find an
appropriate niche, and to do quite well, often surpassing their peers from
As examples, my friends and acquaintances with geography degrees include
the following successful people: a crime-scene investigator, a newspaper
publisher, a library director, quite a few college professors (of course), university deans
, corporate consultants of many kinds, a department-store executive, and
a dot-com billionaire. That's billionaire with a "b." Mother Teresa and Michael
Jordan also graduated in geography. The same kind of thing is true in many
other disciplines. Experienced corporate executives look for new talent
among liberal-arts graduates, often prefering them to applicants with business
Return to my Not-the-13th-Grade page.
Any questions? Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
James Hayes-Bohanan, Ph.D.
Bridgewater State College