Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Quote of the day

Majoring in literature or art history rather than economics or biology, never mind hotel management or marketing, suggests a certain privileged indifference to material concerns (even when this rests on actual indifference instead of piles of money). And if you’ve gone into serious debt by attending college, afterward you’ll have noted that it’s the do-gooding NGO or the progressive magazine that expects you to take an unpaid internship, and the publishing house or academic department that offers you a pittance.
From n+1, via Arts & Letters Daily.

Agreed, but not sure I'd have kept that last bit in parentheses. Anecdotal evidence time here for a change, but when I think of those who went into higher-paid professions versus humanities grad school, there's some social-mobility-via-biology-major, but frequently enough, bankers are children of bankers, lawyers children of doctors, grad students children of academics. Do the impractical-sounding majors attract socialites? At the undergrad level, some, sure, but there's also reproduction of a high-cultural-capital, low-economic-capital caste to consider. There are so so many grad students whose parents are not only professors, but professors in the same field - one encounters this phenomenon far more often than 'I never have to work a day in my life, so I figured I'd get a PhD in French.'


Miss Self-Important said...

So how many socialites are there in the world, exactly? I always thought the whole phenomenon was limited to Manhattan and select Southern cities. Everywhere else, there are just rich people.

Phoebe said...


Just replace "socialite" with "person with high cultural and economic capital," then. The people who might study something non-lucrative because money is no object.

Although I guarantee there are socialites in Chicago, DC, LA...

Britta said... socialites always have high cultural capital? I would consider Paris Hilton a socialite, but she doesn't seem about to get a PhD in medieval studies anytime soon. I agree there can be a finishing school aspect to elite women's education, e.g. the old jokes about getting your MRS (which are annoying but in some cases true, e.g. for my SIL).

I agree with Phoebe though, in terms of the demographics of people in doctoral programs. It seems like a majority of my fellow grad students either have professor parents or some other middle class/educated career that is successful but not super elite (e.g. psychiatrist, environmental lawyer, government bureaucrat, engineer, etc.) No one is assuming that a PhD in the social sciences will lead to great wealth, and no one appears to have a trust fund either. Also, at a top program (necessary if you actually want a job) most or all students should be fully funded and to even get accepted (top programs in my field have between a 5-1% acceptance rate) requires a high level of seriousness and previous accomplishment, as well as a strong desire to complete the program and get a job in academia.
Pretty much everyone I know chose the dept. I'm in in part based on placement record, which indicates a level of practical mindedness and understanding of how to play the game not associated with airy fairy pursuit of knowledge types.

What also annoys me with these implications is that you don't have to have a trust fund to graduate with no student loans and be fully funded in a program. Top private undergrad institutions are falling all over themselves to recruit accomplished kids from the middle classes or lower (for "economic diversity"), and you can get a free ride now at ANY top private school if your family makes less than 6 figures or so. In fact, unless money is not an issue, it is FAR cheaper to go to an Ivy League-type school than even community college, in that a top university might even pay you to attend as an undergrad. (My friend from a poor family got $500 a semester of discretionary spending in addition to tuition, room & board, travel and books). Any PhD program worth your time will give you a stipend which easily competes with an entry level salary in many careers, and which are more than enough for a young single adult to live on (with dependents its another story, but then hopefully there is a spouse with another job). It seems that there is a conflation between "indifference to worrying how to put food on the table" and "indifference to living a life of conspicuous consumption" in the "material goods" comment. I can pay my rent, afford food, have decent health insurance, save a chunk of my income, and still have money for clothes, books, and drinks at the pub (plus I get free gym membership, nice workshop dinners, student concerts and plays etc). I don't have money for a coke habit, an expensive car, dining out every night at a nice restaurant, etc., but those aren't exactly things I desire in my life.

Phoebe said...


I'd think of Paris Hilton as more of a celebutante than a socialite. A socialite very well might major in French or art history (medieval anything is another matter) as an undergrad. Socialites aren't necessarily in college to meet men - they "debut" at 18 I think - but because it's not really done among any wealthy Americans at this point not to do so. Grad school's another matter - at least this article acknowledged that some grad students make something, but as with all such commentary, MA and PhD, funded and not, it all gets conflated and kind of averaged out to, grad students don't make much. True, but imprecise. The fact that certain programs are funded absolutely influences students' decisions.

"I don't have money for a coke habit, an expensive car, dining out every night at a nice restaurant, etc., but those aren't exactly things I desire in my life."

Yes to this, and what you wrote above it. The n+1 line that followed what I cite here is key: "Goldman Sachs and Google, which pay real salaries, seem in this sense less addicted to exploitation, and more interested in income redistribution, than the Nation or the Yale English department." To call those "real salaries" is... we're in the same realm as the people who say that one simply cannot live in NY on under $100,000 (or some more outrageous amount) per year, because one simply must have one's (lists every known luxury.) But this isn't even just about NY, which makes the idea that a sub-Goldman Sachs salary is not a real one all the more bizarre.

In n+1's defense, though, people do graduate with lots of college debt, because not everyone headed to mainstream success ends up at one of the top few schools with the free-ride-for-the-not-even-poor situation, one that's relatively new, at any rate. But beyond just the question of debt, there's the fact that some are going to college for social mobility, in which case the remote possibility of getting into a good, funded PhD program in the humanities isn't reason enough to risk that kind of major. (A high school friend of mine, along these lines, horrified her parents by majoring in, of all things, political science, a major that to me sounded far more sensible than my own.) Social mobility does require overshooting the mark a bit, maybe not Goldman Sachs, but law, medicine, etc., so I think it's true that someone who's grown up poor or working-class, or with middle-class immigrant parents, will often not even consider the "soft"-PhD route. However - and this gets back to my problem with the n+1 parentheses - that doesn't mean the people who do go that route have trust funds. The reality is... like we've both said, a kind of high-cultural-capital middle-class background as the norm.

Britta said...

Yeah, I pretty much agree. I think this pernicious conflation of anyone not working at McDonald's as somehow in "the elite" that is done by the right as a whole and the (IMO) pretty much defunct left has a hugely negative effect on our country. If every adjunct is just as evil and powerful as the CEO of BP, then it becomes a "well your guys are just as bad as ours and so it all evens out in the wash," OR "well, they're just all privileged people who don't know what it's like to worry about money." Basically, to have credibility in the US you almost have to be actively stupid and ignorant.
Conflation of cultural capital with actual power translates into anti-intellectualism. In addition, it allows people with tons of power to pretend like they don't have much, since they drink bud light and are regular Joes, etc. That's why Obama, the son of a single (academic!) mom is decried as an out of touch elitist, since he speaks grammatically correct English and has taught at (gasp!) the U of Chicago, where he owns a nice house in an ok but not top neighborhood, but George Bush who was a billionaire trust funder with multiple homes and a WASPy pedigree can be a "regular guy" because somehow between Yale and Harvard he never learned to string together a sentence.

PG said...

There are socialites everywhere. I learned this while in the waiting room of a high-end spa in Jakarta, where they had a magazine made up entirely of ads for expensive stuff and articles and photo spreads about rich people and their doings: their parties, fundraisers, womenfolk's oh-so-creative business ventures, etc. Any country that has a class of rich people (i.e. everywhere except maybe genuine Communist nations like Cuba; faux-Commies like Vietnam have idle party girls and publications to document their lives) has socialites. I'm pretty sure even countries where women aren't supposed to show their faces in public have some version of socialites (e.g. the daughters of Saudi princes).

I'd caution against conflating lawyers with other high-earning professionals, just because it's actually very common for law students to have been undergrad majors in all sorts of useless things (I majored in literature and bioethics). Law school, unlike medical, dental, veterinary, nursing, business school, has no prerequisites other than some ability to write coherently in English. This ability is actually more likely to be fostered in the humanities and fuzzier social sciences (anthropology, sociology, various "studies") than in the hard sciences and mathematics, so if you already plan to go to law school, it's perfectly sensible to major in philosophy. You'll get accustomed to reading very long, dull papers from which you're supposed to divine an argument, and to writing your own long, dull papers in which you make counter-arguments. The only reason to major in math/science before going to law school is if you want to join the patent bar, which does require such a background.

Phoebe said...


I think what MSI was saying was that in the US, socialites are clustered in certain areas. Which I think is accurate, although I think she underestimates how many such areas there are.

"I'd caution against conflating lawyers with other high-earning professionals, just because it's actually very common for law students to have been undergrad majors in all sorts of useless things"

This is true, and I'm not sure which comment above, or part of the original post (although I see I didn't spell this out), contradicts it. The discussion of practical vs impractical majors tends to skip over the fact that any major can lead to everyone's favorite practical career.

I would say, however, that the reputation of certain majors as not conducive to social mobility is fair insofar as law school is generally the only way to make an English (or philosophy, etc.) major lucrative, and it's an additional step that not every English major will or should take. The English major who could only get into a lower-tier law school, or who truly can't imagine practicing law, has indeed picked an impractical major. So it's not that the impractical major entirely rules out the possibility of making money later on, but that we shouldn't interpret all impractical-major undergrads as on a path to top law schools.