Brian Goldman | Rush-ing to conclusions

The Gold Standard | Rush Limbaugh’s assault on humanities majors is ill-informed

· November 7, 2011, 12:37 am   ·  Updated November 8, 2011, 12:45 am

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Rush Limbaugh is a staple member of the incendiary political punditry that believes that the more outrageous the claim (regardless of facts), the more attention garnered and the higher the ratings.

And because Limbaugh has such a reputation, I mostly ignore what he says. But when he took a potshot at Penn, it was impossible to ignore.

For those who (I hope) had much more enjoyable activities over the Homecoming weekend than listening or following the Limbaugh lunacy, Rush essentially went on one of his trademark tangents, this one relative to the “uselessness” of a classical studies degree, and proceeded to read a statement from Penn’s Department of Classical Studies website.

But the essence of Limbaugh’s statement is not really found in the part regarding Penn. The much more interesting — and controversial — aspect of Limbaugh’s rant regards the perceived “worthlessness” of degrees in the humanities sphere — classical studies was his chosen example. But you could have filled in “Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies,” or “Ancient History,” both offered here in the College, and Limbaugh’s point would have been maintained.

Let’s use his own words to summarize his argument. “You [universities] steer people to useless degrees” while the students “ought to be told by somebody at a school that it’s a worthless degree.”

Parsing Limbaugh’s statement reveals two sub-points that are radically opposed: one egregious and ill-founded, the other statistically supported and, arguably, correct.

Limbaugh’s assertion that a bachelor’s degree in classical studies is “worthless” is a mostly flawed idea. Confining worth to solely the return on investment that the degree yields is maddeningly narrow-minded; while worth may be measured by dollar signs to most, it is nonetheless an individual preference that varies case by case. There are those out there who engage in charitable or social causes for a living strictly because their sense of worth is not primarily rooted in monetary success.

But let’s take Rush’s argument that “worth” can only be measured by monetary value at face value. In this logical realm, evidence does exist that supports Limbaugh’s claim: certain degrees do yield greater returns than others. A 2011 study by Georgetown University found — to little surprise, I’m sure — that humanities, arts, education and social work majors were the four lowest-earning major groups. At the top stood more pre-professional major groups with a clear niche and defined job market, such as engineering, computers and mathematics and business.

Yet it was the ultimate piece of Limbaugh’s argument that left me most bewildered. He suggested that universities essentially should steer students away from softer majors, such as classical studies, and toward pre-professional majors. Or, at the very least, the students “ought to be told” how very worthless their pursuits shall be.

Several arguments highlight the fallibility of Limbaugh’s point. Part of the idea of humanities and “soft” majors, of which I am arguably a member as a political science student, is that productive citizens in a society tend to be well-rounded. For every pre-professional major — say, finance — there is a theory and philosophy behind the major. Modern finance, or economics, has been shaped by the philosophical (and scientific) contributions of folks spanning from Adam Smith to John Maynard Keynes to Milton Friedman. It is a harmonious relationship of sorts, where the two separate spheres of learning still reinforce each other continuously — and have throughout history.

This whole notion brings me back to a column that David Brooks of The New York Times wrote three years ago, in which he points out that a successful economy and country is fueled not only by talent but also by innovative thinking and creativity. To foster a nation where students are robotically pushed toward certain desirable majors, as Limbaugh suggests, would drain the creativity and analytical thinking that liberal arts majors emphasize and that a humming economy requires as fuel.

In that sort of nation, American youth would have less freedom to pursue what they wish, as government and higher-ups may dictate what is worth studying and what isn’t. That sounds an awful lot like the c-word: communism.

And wouldn’t Rush really hate that?

Brian Goldman is a College senior from Queens, N.Y. His email address is briangol@sas.upenn.edu. The Gold Standard appears every Monday.

SEE ALSO

Letter: On the defense of Classics majors
Under the Button: Rush Limbaugh Hates Penn

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