Tuesday, March 4, 2014


So the other day I was on a long lunch buying a new, say, widget and, after a detailed discussion on current trends in widget design, fell to talking about Widget Guy's nefarious past as a Physical Anthropology undergraduate on a Romano-Dacian tomb excavation in Serbia back in probably the 80's. How we got on that subject I have no idea, but it led in turn to a discussion of the now-defunct Classics program at the uni we both attended, and the fact that, although we both work in jobs that -- on paper -- have little to do with what we studied as Humanities undergrads, we still actually value the work we did there. More to the point, and an exponentially more important point it is, neither of us consider our education to have ended just because at some stage we got handed nicely printed sheets of vellum. Then other customers came in, and he had to get back to work and I had to get back to the Borg Cube.

The Borg Cube is an interesting case study in that it is filled with people who are either Accountants by training or they are not. Those who are not fall generally into two categories: those who have college degrees in something interesting and those who have none. Of the three other people in my immediate pod, two are high school graduates and one has degrees in Economics and Public Administration. Over the wall is someone with a degree in Piano Performance. There's a bass player down the aisle, and in the aisle nearest
 the windows is an honest-to-God self-confessed English Major. (Over beyond the atrium is a guy who has the Opera News cover with Ambrogio Maestri pinned up on his wall -- I haven't figured out his deal yet.)

They don't teach Platonic solids in Accounting either.
Then there's my buddy, we'll call him K. He's got an Accounting degree, and he's a news junkie. We spend what our bosses probably think is an inordinate amount of time talking politics, and those conversations are fun and interesting and wide-ranging. So when I got back to the Cube, I told him about this conversation I had with Widget Guy. Interestingly, the thing that I found cool -- the fact that this conversation about archaeological excavations had cropped up in such an unexpected place at an unexpected time -- was what he thought was funny. As in "Hahahaha! a guy who majored in Anthropology is selling widgets! How pathetic! Isn't that hilarious and totally justifies every [lame-assed] notion ever floated in the mainstream press about 'useless degrees'!" Of course, attendant on this is a subtextual "Yay me for being smart enough to choose Accounting! At least I'm not that guy!"

Except, K, you are that guy. Which is to say not Widget Guy, but the Mythical Creature that looms so huge and pale in your imagination, standing in a corner with a sign around its neck that says Widget Guy: Humanities Major. Let's examine:

Widget Guy has two lives: one where he has started, grown, and maintained a successful business for at least the last decade, and one where he's kept up with developments in Physical Anthropology (and there have been a lot since he walked off the podium with a sheepskin, so this isn't just reading the latest outdated Missing Link Discovery! Weekly Report on Yahoo News).

K, on the other hand, has one life, comprised almost entirely of work and family. And much of what he experiences with family he grouses about later at work. We can only hope he grouses about work to family on the flip side, because fair is fair.

Conclusion: K, you don't get out enough.

Widget Guy is naturally gregarious, which is a benefit when working in retail, particularly in an independent business where the owner is doing most of the customer service and all of the business networking.

K is also naturally gregarious, which is not a benefit when you're supposed to be hunkered down in your Borg subcube doing Borg subwork.

Conclusion: K, you are trapped in a tiny cube.

Widget Guy has kids. One is in an Architecture program at a major tech school. The other is looking at Classics programs at the dreaded Expensive Liberal Arts Colleges. Widget Guy doesn't seem worried about them. He says that Classics Department chairs have made a point of asking him, the parent, if he supports his kid's interest in majoring in Classics. Of course he does. Why? Because in his other life he is not Widget Guy but Romano-Dacian Tomb Excavation Guy.

K also has kids. K worries a lot about them. They're out of college, struggling as kids in their twenties usually do. He's not sure they've chosen wisely or well in their college careers, and he wonders how long he will have to support them.

Conclusion: K, not only are you trapped in a cube, but you have convinced yourself you cannot afford to leave. Ever.

So while we allow the public discourse on higher education to make bogus and weirdly manichaean divisions between the Marketable and the Non-marketable, maybe we should also recognize that we are tending to confuse the concept of Education with the concept of Training. Education is about developing habits of mind. Training is about learning how to do a job. K's inherent assumption, the thing that made him laugh, is as common to the Borg Cube as it is elsewhere: that Humanities people are losers who wasted their college education in frivolous pursuit of useless knowledge, while the smart ones had the foresight to dedicate their undergraduate careers to something perceived to be useful, practical, lucrative (maybe), and...finite.

What's the bottom line, then? Consider the examples above, then extrapolate. If the educational agenda you promote results in the collective habit of mind being able to reckon only in terms of Profit and Loss, what more does that create than a culture of impoverishment?

St Jerome sez: Whatever you do, it will surely end in Hell, so smoke 'em if you got 'em.


  1. I love the detail in that etching - particularly the drone peeping from beneath her skirt.

    1. This etching was on the cover of the last math textbook I ever owned. Not sure it was the most brilliant choice of graphic ever.

  2. The only regret I have ever had about reading mathematics is that I couldn't read History instead. I have rarely used my mathematics directly in the workplace but it hasn't stopped me being modestly successful either. Vocational education is severely overrated.

    1. The funny thing is when the accountants in the Cube confess that they don't actually use their accounting. But it got them the job, so hey...