Book Review: Worthless

by Elusive Wapiti on July 3, 2012

The Book: Worthless — The Young Person’s Indispensable Guide to Choosing the Right Major, by Aaron Clarey, 173 pages.

Summary: Aaron. Clarey, aka Captain Capitalism, has penned a guide aimed straight at the 18-25 college demo.  This book’s title truthfully advertises what the reader will see inside…a straight-up practical guide to selecting a college major that will provide the student with the best odds for well-compensated employment after their stint in college is complete.

One key takeaway from this book is found in the opening pages, in a description of an exercise he used to give to his students (and therefore to the reader).  In one instance of this exercise, he invited his students to consider the items they were thinking of buying (cell phones, sports cars, flat screen TV, beer, etc….tangible widgets all).  Then he asked them their majors or planned majors, garnering the below responses:

Sociology x2
Women’s Studies
Electrical Engineering
Journalism x2
Psychology x2
Education x2
Actuarial Science
Political Science x2
International Relations
Music / Arts
“African-American” Studies

Mr. Clarey then contrasted the yawning mismatch between their liberal-arts fields of study with the goods and services they consume for his students.  For how does a sociology major (or journo, psych, poli sci, music, hyphenated-American, English major…you get my point) contribute to the design and production of a cell phone, the extraction of petroleum to fuel a sports car, or make or provide much anything of value that consumers demand?  The answer is, not much, if anything at all. And that is exactly the point.  Mr. Clarey writes:

The mismatch between what people want and the skilled labor required to build it makes it very clear the problems facing youth today.  [They] all want to have high-paying jobs, [they] all want to go to college, but [they] never give an ounce of thought to what is in demand. Most youth today major in what they want, not what other people demand.  This not only goes a long way in explaining why liberal-arts majors face high unemployment and low-paying jobs, but also explains why we have a trade deficit with the likes of China and India whose students do major in the fields that produce the goods we want. [emphasis in original]

Another takeaway from this book is bound to make American middle- and high-school students everywhere groan: you gotta learn the maths.  For math is the foundational component of all the STEM degrees that feed into high-paying jobs making the widgets that consumers buy.  But, Mr. Clarey cautions, “not all STEM degrees were created equal”, and one’s mathematical proficiency must be paired with another high-skill, low-density/high-demand component (i.e., chemistry, etc) if the STEM focus is to deliver on the investment.  He also warns readers away from those degrees that lack mathematical rigor, which include all lib-arts degrees and some degrees sometimes and erroneously lumped in with STEM, such as finance and architecture.

A third takeaway from this book is the folly in the cultural expectation that “winners” go to college while the dregs settle for trade school. Mr. Clarey pokes holes in this cultural norm, noting that while “you must go to college to be somebody” was good advice in the years after WWII when a tiny fraction of the labor force had college degrees. Unfortunately, there is a surfeit of  college degrees in America today, to the point where possession of a bachelor’s is functionally equivalent to having graduated from high school 60 years ago. As before, Mr. Clarey points to the supply-demand curve, notes bachelor’s degree market glut, grade inflation (i.e., the sheepskin has lost some of its meaning as an indicator of real learning and/or skills), and skyrocketing tuition, and recommends the trades as well-paying, in-demand, value-producing jobs that have the important benefit of being far cheaper than college.  Moreover, one can always go to college later, with all that money they saved by going to a trade school.

The fourth and final major takeaway from the book was where Mr. Clarey dispenses a bit of the “if I had to do it all over again” style of advice. He exhorts the young to enjoy college, by which he means study and do well but don’t overdo it in the process. He proffers the military as a way to garner skills, credibility, and (if you stick around for 20 years or more) a pension.  As the author contends that no-one really takes young adults seriously…and they’re paid low wages in accordance with their low levels of skills…until their mid- to late thirties, this option has the added advantage of returning one back into the private labor force as one enters their prime earning years  In addition, he advises those already working on worthless degrees to quit right away, consider the effort invested thus far as a sunk cost, and get cracking on a major that will actually service all those student loans.  Speaking of loans, he further recommends young people to avoid debt if they can, to spend some time in the labor force (so long as they return to school), to not worry about reasonable debt for a worthwhile degree (it’s an investment), consider a two-year degree program in lieu of a four, and / or start their own business on the side.  To this advice, Mr. Clarey also recommends prospective job seekers to bypass HR (where companies place troublesome worthless degree holders) and go directly to the hiring authority instead.  And last, the author advises students to be open-minded about employment overseas, in economically freer countries.

I found the author’s perspective of college-as-trade school to be interesting, for the academy has undergone a fundamental transformation in the 20th Century. What started as a way to transmit knowledge from one generation of learned men to the next during the Middle Ages has morphed into overpriced trade schools for the mass-man in the post-WWII age.  Indeed, the author is careful to largely avoid applying the “e” word–education–to these facilities of so-called higher learning in his book, for that is not what modern colleges are for or do, and not how Mr. Clarey advises the youth to view a college education anyways. Instead, in the author’s view, the purpose of attending a modern college is to acquire practical skills that will produce something that a consumer demands. Period.  This perspective underlays the author’s hard-nosed return-on-investment perspective on seeking a degree from the modern university…this rather than lofty and antiquated notions of men and women of culture acquiring a broad, liberal education.  And besides, how well do colleges do these days matriculating cultured, critically thinking, well-rounded citizens anyways?  Some think colleges close minds rather than open them.

It is in this re-purposed mission that the modern university does many things that don’t make much sense to the author. In fact, a portion of the book is a polemic against the education institution itself, an institution with revenues two and a half times larger than the entire oil industry in America.  This fact led the author to wonder aloud that if so-called “Big Oil” is, by dint of it’s size and scope, inherently exploitative of its customers, how is “Big Ed” not so?  Big Ed, in the author’s characterization, does not exist for the benefit of students but rather, like any large bureaucracy, it serves the teachers, administrators, executives, and the institution itself.  This while the data suggests a slight negative correlation between spending per student and academic achievement; one would think that if spending on education were truly “for the children”, we would see a slight (or better) positive correlation between increased spending and standardized test scores.  Instead, the only thing that is increasing is teacher and administrator salaries, far outpacing inflation.  Furthermore, Mr. Clarey also questions the need for prerequisites, and offers that the sheer number of prerequisites–see the university’s former mission of matriculating educated, well-rounded pillars of society, above–wastes students’ time and “generate[s] money for other departments, notably departments of worthless majors”, by ramming a captive student body through worthless classes taught by instructors who themselves were schooled in worthless majors. An economic term comes to mind regarding this sort of activity: ‘rent-seeking’, or the act of manipulating the rules so as to shunt economic activity one’s direction.

The author makes clear his antipathy for an institution that predates upon the young and naive.  But I find myself wondering, isn’t Big Ed just giving the customer what it demands, good and hard?  Were not Mr. Clarey’s classes filled with students who signed up for worthless majors, with only a sprinkling of STEM students?  Why then would it not make sense for universities tilt toward supplying a “product” for this admittedly misguided and economically foolish demand?  Moreover, these days apparently demand for STEM is so weak that some colleges think hard about eliminating STEM programs while others actually do so.  (To be fair, a few colleges like this one are drop-kicking worthless degrees too).  In an age of declining male enrollment and overwhelming female predilection for non-STEM degrees, I don’t see the economics supporting expensive STEM programs when cheaper lib-arts programs are more in demand.  With this framing, the finger of blame for Big Ed’s vampire bloat is at least partially shared by students, parents, and corporate America, for it is these three who choose personal fulfillment over acquisition of skills that will put food on the table, who propagate the erroneous notion that college is the ticket to success, and who use college degrees and university-level certifications as stealth proxies for IQ and desirable personality qualities.

This book administers an economic “red pill” to the college-bound, so as to ensure they don’t end up like this woman, who racked up just under $100,000 in student loans for her interdisciplinary degree in religious and women’s studies and struggles to find gainful employment that will service her debt. Key quote: “I don’t want to spend the rest of my life slaving away to pay for an education I got for four years and would happily give back”.

A better poster boy, er, girl, for Mr. Clarey’s book, I don’t think I could find one better than Cortney Munna. For those in college, considering college, or are advising a young adult about to enter college, this book is a quick read and well worth your time.

About the author: EW is a well-trained monkey charged with operating heavier-than-air machinery. His interests outside of being an opinionated rabble-rouser are hunting, working out, motorcycling, spending time with his family, and flying. He is a father to three, a husband to one, and is a sometime contributor here at Spearhead. More of his intolerable drivel is available at the blog The Elusive Wapiti.

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