Magazine | March 9, 2015, Issue

Art for Unemployment’s Sake

Talk of Scott Walker’s college career made me think of the highlights of my time in the halls of dear old U of Minnesota — the pipes clanking on a winter’s day, the creak of the wood floor as the professor strolled from side to side, the gentle snore of a student in the back row. My first year I had an English class. Chaucer. Ye parfit c’nick yclept Gwioin doth hither be swain and so on. Reading this at 8 a.m. was like trying to untie wet shoelaces while wearing oven mitts.

The teacher was a short hunchbacked old man with a face like a long potato, dressed in an old suit with the obligatory elbow patches, smelling of pipe smoke, and he would point out the ribald parts for our amusement. Once he recited a naughty ditty that used the Homeric line “rosy-finger’d dawn” as a punch line for the discussion of the works of Sappho, something that would get him a week in the stocks nowadays, pelted with organic produce. It was a wonderful class. Don’t remember a word of it.

That goes double for 19th-Century European Diplomatic History, which was taught by a brilliant man who walked back and forth as if pacing off for a duel; he grew red as the lecture advanced, until he resembled a moist tomato with a steel-grey buzz cut. Don’t remember a word. I remember that Metternich was important, and it is important to know who Metternich was. But the sum total of three quarters seems to be the ability to say, “If only the Concert of Europe had not ended with the Götterdämmerung, no?” with a wry smile among other Educated Sorts and have everyone nod.

The only things that really stuck, as far as names and dates and accomplishments, were Russian Literature (taught by a strenuously attractive woman with Rooshian accent and feelink for soul) and Renaissance Art. In the latter case the teacher had been explaining Giotto and Vasari for years, but he was like one of those actors who’d played the same role for a thousand performances: It was still fascinating to him and inspiring to us — so when he stood in a dark room describing the genius of a statue, unaware that the slide projector was displaying the groin of David right on his face, no one laughed.

I had dinner with the art professor 30 years later and asked him if he knew he’d been lecturing with the buttocks of a Mannerist putto on his forehead. Yes, well, it was unavoidable, wasn’t it? Almost enough to make someone want to teach 20th-century art. (Theatrical shudder.) Almost.

Alas, neither art history or Russian lit were my major. I was an English major, which qualified me to know that the previous sentence should read “Neither art history nor Russian lit was my major.” (I think.) My college education took place outside the classroom: at my restaurant job, where I learned about business and human nature, and at the college newspaper, where I learned the skill of writing for a large audience with a deadline gun to your head. The newspaper had a circulation of 60,000; it came out five days a week. It was in the basement of the journalism school, but few of the people who worked on the paper went to J school, and vice versa.

That’s correct: You could get a degree in journalism without working on the paper. This is like getting a degree in anatomy by studying the board game Operation when there’s a room full of cadavers next door.

So Scott Walker didn’t finish college? Eh. To say the obvious: A degree does not bestow wisdom any more than donning a clerical collar guarantees goodness. It’s not as if the magic paper somehow activates all the information you absorbed in the previous four years and ties it together in unexpected ways, leaving you so dazzled you can hardly find your way off the stage. My — my God! I knew critical literary theory, and I had a smattering of art history, but now that I have a degree I see glistening filaments that tie together the deconstruction of texts and the Renaissance’s revision of the pictorial tradition! It’s all connected! And thus the graduate is not unemployable for one reason but for a fascinating matrix of reasons.

Imagine a job interview.

Do you have a college degree?

Yes, I am.

And which college?

University of California at Malibu? I have like a degree in television with an emphasis on reality shows? Basically a bachelor’s degree in The Bachelor.

This position requires a certain familiarity with math.

Well, sure, we had to learn all that. Like, channel number 235 is going to be somewhere between 230 and 240, so if you’re advancing the remote with the button that goes ten channels all at once, it’s like, whoa, you should slow down when you get to the lower 200s.

What was channel 235, by the way?

Hey, now you’re talking graduate-level stuff.

The degree shows you can finish something, but if you went $150K into debt to get a B.A. in a discipline that contains the word “science” but did not study, you know, actual science, then the matter of your judgment may take precedence over your evident persistence. Or not: A degree signifies your elevation to the priestly class. The elect. The class of credentialed Smart People who have inhaled the rarefied atmosphere in which Theory takes the place of Wisdom.  Anyway, it’s not like Walker can’t finish the degree by unusual means someday.

Like an executive order. There, your president is a grad. Happy now?

– Mr. Lileks blogs at

In This Issue


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B.S. Degrees

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