Courses to Success
A professor in college once told me that the first step in choosing your career is deciding whether you prefer to spend your life working with people, things, or ideas. I agree with Charles C. W. Cooke that college is not for everyone, especially those who like to work with things. Yet his article “Drop the ‘Dropout’” (April 21) contains two flaws. First, he cites only one piece of anecdotal evidence that “credential-based snobbery” is widespread among Americans, the PoliticsUSA headline about Governor Scott Walker. Therefore, he creates a “straw-man argument” based on the fallacy of inductive reasoning. The only people I ever meet who display this kind of credential snobbery are insecure degree-holders who are not sure if they are smart. On the contrary, I sense a widespread sentiment, even among educated colleagues, that America needs a skilled work force with more plumbers, electricians, and mechanics.
Second, his argument seems to assume that the only purpose of a college education is to acquire a high-paying job leading to success in a material sense. No one denies that the world is filled with highly creative, successful college dropouts. Yet I argue that a college education can “lead to a better life” even for carpenters or factory workers. A true liberal-arts education creates a love of learning for its own sake. Both my parents were high-school dropouts. Yet my love of knowledge was stimulated in college by some great professors, to whom I owe a debt of gratitude. They exposed me to great thinkers and ideas in economics, history, theology, psychology, and sociology, the subjects in which I took most of my courses. I didn’t graduate with any “practical skills.” Yet a love for reading created by exposure to great ideas gave me the impetus to develop writing skills and become, first, a journalist, and later in life a successful author and professor. The opportunity to attend college was among the best things that ever happened to me.
David E. Sumner, Professor of Journalism
Ball State University
Charles C. W. Cooke responds: If there is indeed “a widespread sentiment, even among educated colleagues, that America needs a skilled work force with more plumbers, electricians, and mechanics,” it is certainly not being conveyed to the nation’s young. The United States is approaching $1 trillion in student debt; the unwavering rhetoric of the political class is that everybody who wants to go to college should go to college; and yet, on the one occasion when the president managed to make the case in public that “folks can make a lot more, potentially, with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an art-history degree,” he was forced to apologize after a professor in that subject objected.
Providing that one’s teachers are useful, being exposed to “great thinkers and ideas in economics, history, theology, psychology, and sociology” is certainly worthwhile. Nevertheless, the system is not set up for dilettantes; it is set up to create “the work force of tomorrow,” or whatever other hollow platitude is regnant at the moment. Perhaps the most notable thing about the Occupy Wall Street movement was its complaint that so many had been through college but could not now find a job. Where do we think they got the idea that such a job would be forthcoming?