Not everyone can be a plumber

Stop sneering at art history majors, writes Virginia Postrel on Bloomberg News. Pundits blame underemployed college graduates for picking impractical majors, she argues, citing Bill Frezza’s attack on the college entitlement mentality in Real Clear Politics.

“Many people that go to college lack the smarts and/or the tenacity to benefit in any real sense,” he wrote. “Many of these people would be much better off becoming plumbers — including financially. (No shame in that, who’re you gonna call when your pipes freeze in the middle of the night? An M.A. in Italian art?)”

Only 12 percent of college students major in the humanities, a tiny fraction in art history. The most popular major is business. Add in economics and STEM  (science, technology, engineering and math) and nearly half of graduates have practical majors.  “The rest, however, aren’t sitting around discussing Aristotle and Foucault.”  Many are studying health, education and graphic design, fields they think will lead to a “practical, job-oriented credential.”

Nobody knows which subjects will turn out to be “right” in the coming decades, writes Postrel, who earned an English major in the late ’70s. Her practical skills — excellent typing and journalism — are now obsolete, or nearly so.

The skills that still matter are the habits of mind I honed in the classroom: how to analyze texts carefully, how to craft and evaluate arguments, and how to apply microeconomic reasoning, along with basic literacy in accounting and statistics. My biggest regret isn’t that I didn’t learn Fortran, but that I didn’t study Dante.

Unfortunately, many college students don’t learn analysis or argumentation. They lack the broad knowledge that makes it possible to “figure out what you don’t know and build on what you do know to adapt to new situations and new problems.”  Frezza is talking about people who lack “smarts” and tenacity and practical skills. There are a lot of those folks out there, even if few of them studied Italian art history.

The argument that public policy should herd students into STEM fields is as wrong-headed as the notion that industrial policy should drive investment into manufacturing or “green” industries. It’s just the old technocratic central planning impulse in a new guise. It misses the complexity and diversity of occupations in a modern economy, forgets the dispersed knowledge of aptitudes, preferences and job requirements that makes labor markets work, and ignores the profound uncertainty about what skills will be valuable not just next year but decades in the future.

Pundits “can experiment on their children,” but the rest of the population is not “lab mice,” Postrel concludes.

One of my daughter’s friends majored in art history (on her parents’ dimes). She’s now supporting herself as a prop designer for independent movies. If she’d tried for a STEM major, she’d probably have flopped.

About Joanne


  1. dangermom says:

    I was a comparative literature major myself, and it’s probably hard to find a less practical major. I’m a librarian now though. And my question is, why can’t Postrel study Dante on her own?

  2. I majored in History, but specialized in quantitative analysis, including creation and use of databases and statistical analysis. I minored in Science, and got experience with setting up computer networks and programming.

    The problem isn’t the major, it’s the dummying down of honest-to-God criticism of students’ efforts. You need to be able to put a C on a research paper, along with comments about HOW it’s that bad. Hopefully, the student will improve. I did, when a prof in the early days did just that.

    Too many students are getting A’s for C work. Too many students are STEALING other people’s work, and submitting it as theirs.

    BTW, it wasn’t only what I learned in college that counted, it was the work I did after college to learn more of whatever my bosses thought would be useful. In other words, I didn’t graduate into a cushy executive job – I spent time making myself worth my salary.

  3. BTW, contrary to popular opinion, plumbers aren’t dumb. Not just everybody can do the job, nor master the skills necessary. Some people just aren’t smart enough to handle the work of a craftsman.

  4. superdestroyer says:

    What Ms. Postrel does not understand even with her claims of “crafting arguments” is that some career fields are log-normally distributed such as being a pundit (a few succeed over long odds and incredible barriers to entry) and some career fields are normally distributed (such as pharmacist or nurses).

    What middle class students need to understand is not that an art history major is bad but that is makes achieving a middle class or higher life style very hard and very much against the odds. the same can be said for acting, journalist, writer, or even lawyer.

    If a student is doing to borrow money to attend college, one should major in a normally distributed career field that leads to a high probability of a job that will allow the loans to be paid off.

  5. Amen, LindaF. I have a friend whose Dad was a plumber, and who told his son that he had better plan on going to college because he would never make it as a plumber. Son became a lawyer.

  6. Sharon Rauenzahn says:

    I’m more worried about lack of jobs for teens and college students than about what major students take. I majored in History, but worked in the computer lab on campus and had summer jobs at book and computer stores (which tended to be linked back in the 80’s). After college, I temped in a law office, then got a job at a technology haven (JPL) as a secretary, but learned Unix on the side and worked my way up to QA and eventually moved to a high-tech startup (using the same family and church connections that helped me get started at JPL) in the Bay Area doing Tech Support. At “retirement” in my 30’s (to be a full-time mom) I was making a little over 80k (on my own steam – my connections had long since moved on to other companies). I would say networking, drive, and job experience (almost any job!) can be as important as schooling in many career areas. My creative writing awards from college convinced potential employers that I’d be able to communicate well in standard English (the biggest part of my job). Could I do it the same way today? Maybe, but only if I was able to get the part-time jobs along the way in the field I was interested in. Could I have done it without human networking? Probably not. I’d have had to go back for a specialized degree in something. (But college connections could have done as well as family/church ones if I’d made use of them.)

  7. Richard Aubrey says:

    Said it before about blue-collar skilled work. If you’re not a highly-skilled craftsman working in a factory, you’re a small businessman or working for one. That requires both the craft and the people and business savvy you’d expect to need. But that not everybody has. Or could get.

  8. I think the issue is when we take people who would be perfectly happy being a plumber and do a good job at it, and tell them they need to find something to get a BA in. Not that everyone majoring in Art History should do plumbing instead.

  9. Richard Aubrey says:

    I think there is an implied view that knowledge is a single line, and the more seat time you have, the more knowledge you will have.
    In fact, there are skill sets so different that some folks will never get them at all while others will eat them up for breakfast and want something challenging for the rest of the day.
    That you can’t be a BA in history doesn’t mean you go back down to, or stop at, plumbing in the knowledge line.
    Completely different issue. Plumbing isn’t, say, 72% of BA. For a number of majors, it would certainly be the reverse.

  10. Deirdre Mundy says:

    And it’s not like “becoming a plumber” is a shorter path than “getting a BA”– you have to find someone to take you on as an apprentice, then be a journeyman, etc. etc. And a lot of plumbers diversify into HVAC too, so they have to have a lot of technical skill.

    But yes, Postrel is completely mis-characterizing the argument– it’s not that NOONE should get a BA–it’s that BA shouldn’t be the default, and that students need a wider exposure to career options–that Dr and Lawyer aren’t the only choices out there….

    Still, the poorly educated kids who say “I want to be a lawyer” when they can barely pass high school aren’t going to be plumbers or mechanics either. But what DO you say to the barely literate eleventh grader about his options? “Sorry kid, at this point your choice is prison or janitor?”

  11. Richard Aubrey says:

    That seems to be the only choice. You could add that there may be a GED in his future, and, with sufficient work, he might manage a remedial course or two, and maybe a few CC classes.
    The killer is the difference between the unfortunate kid without the horses and the kid who just won’t do the work.