The Classical blogosphere (or at least some blogs on the periphery of it) is all agog because Rush Limbaugh has gone on a rant about Classical studies and everyone seems to be taking it personally and/or as a chance to bash Rush Limbaugh. Full disclosure: years ago I used to listen to Rush regularly but haven’t in years because my teaching job no longer gives me the time to do so. Even so, while I don’t agree with everything he says (far from it), he does make good points from time to time and — probably most importantly, especially in regards to this situation — he knows his audience very well and knows exactly what they want to hear. He also develops/forms his opinions very frequently on air — thinking out loud — and this is a prime example of that. That said — and I hope I don’t lose readers because of this — I really didn’t find what Rush said to be ‘unexpected’, and as such, it really didn’t bother me much; my reasoning follows …
At the outset of my own little analysis, I’d strongly suggest that folks read the entire transcript of the segment(s) from the show: Deciphering the Sad-Sack Story of a Classical Studies Scholar to get the complete picture of what Rush is actually saying. In a nutshell, an Occupy Wall Street participant of sorts posted a photo of her (him?) self on which was scrawled (this is the description from the show; there’s a photo there as well):
“I graduate college in seven months with a useless degree in Classical Studies. I have worked very hard and am on track to graduate with Latin. I am in a Greek organization with many volunteer hours under my belt. My job prospects, zero.”
Rush’s initial comments are:
Now, do you think somebody going to college, borrowing whatever it is in this case, $20,000 a year to get a degree in Classical Studies ought to be told by somebody at a school that it’s a worthless degree? (interruption) Well, I don’t know what the minor was. It might be Latin. It’s a lousy picture; I can’t read the woman’s printing or handwriting. But at any rate, why is it that no one in her life told her that getting a degree in Classical Studies would not lead to employment? In fact, how many college students do you think believe that just getting a degree equals a high-paying job? Probably a lot of them. Not that you can blame ‘em. That’s what they’ve been sold on. That’s what they’ve been told. Ergo, that’s what they expect. A college degree equals success, riches, whatever. Not work. This is key, now.
After one of his self-dialogues trying to figure out the student’s thought processes on this one, he continues:
Tell me, any of you at random listening all across the fruited plain, what the hell is Classical Studies? What classics are studied? Or, is it learning how to study in a classical way? Or is it learning how to study in a classy as opposed to unclassy way? And what about unClassical Studies? Why does nobody care about the unclassics? What are the classics? And how are the classics studied? Oh, cause you’re gonna become an expert in Dickens? You’re assuming it’s literature. See, you’re assuming we’re talking classical literature here. What if it’s classical women’s studies? What if it’s classical feminism? Who the hell knows what it is? One thing I do know is that she, the brain-dead student, doesn’t know what it is, after she’s got a major in it. Because all she knows to do with it is go down to Occupy Wall Street and complain and write a note for the cameras.
… Many commentators, it seems, have used this as a point of departure to bash Rush for not knowing what our discipline is. But it must be realized that this is patent-Rush-knows-his-audience. If one were to go out on the street, Rick Mercer-like, and question regular folks about what they think Classics or Classical Studies is, you’ll get a mix of answers like the above. But Rush does know what Classical studies are and later in the show he says such:
I got an e-mail from a friend of mine who’s a renowned newspaper columnist whose name it’s probably best I don’t mention (for her sake). She says, “Rush, I have a degree in Classical Studies. It’s Greek and Latin. I worked my way through college. I only borrowed a thousand dollars to do it. I can’t agree with you that the degree is worthless. In a world with so many less-than-literate people Classics majors have an edge.” I can understand that. But where? I really question some of these people graduating with a major in Classical Studies if they really are learning anything.
… and, of course, you can wonder if anyone anywhere is really learning anything and especially if you’re part of Rush’s typical demographic this especially applies. As my Italian immigrant grandfather frequently said (I am told): “More jecation, less smart”.
Rush then mentions some famous folks with Classics backgrounds — Karl Marx and Winston Churchill — then visits UPenn’s website and reads the description of their Classics program. He doesn’t find it to be something he’d be interested in, which is fine. He then returns, inter alia, to his central theme:
There’s no degree that’s gonna change a useless person into a useful person. No college degree is gonna turn anybody into a useful person. In fact, one of the big problems, I think, that a lot of people have with a college degree is that they expect it is the ticket. Not the work. That it is the ticket. Victor Davis Hanson, by the way, he’s another classicist. He teaches classical studies. He is an expert on ancient Greek history, by the way. But he’s a farmer. Victor Davis Hanson is a farmer, and he is a writer, columnist and so forth. He’s at the Hoover Institute, the campus at Stanford; writes for National Review Online and other things and that’s where he derives his income. He doesn’t go to the Classical Studies office.
I’ll close the excerpting with a bit that includes a caller’s comment, just so folks can get an idea of Rush’s primary demographic, in case they don’t already know it:
CALLER: What we need to do is these classical study people, we need to send them to me, and I will pay them how to study the classified ads to get a job after college.
RUSH: (laughing) Well, you know, it’s obvious as I look into this Classical Studies business it is obvious at one time it was something of great esteme, something of tremendous import and value. I have to think like everything else in higher education today that it’s been dumbed down. In fact, about Victor Davis Hanson, he actually created the classics program at California State University Fresno in 1984, and he was a professor there until recently. He created it because of the deterioration in the whole field because of how it’s lost whatever specialness that it once had. But I think there’s all kinds of theories to explain what’s going on in higher education. For example, it’s not new that college graduates don’t know anything. That’s not really that new.
Now, I think it is relatively new, two generations, that worthless degrees are being constructed and taught and awarded. But generally what’s happened is that American employers have taken these ill-educated graduates and they’ve turned ‘em into productive employees after a lot of investment. But in this economy, in the Obama economy, employers don’t have the money, they don’t have the wherewithal, and they don’t have the confidence or the money or the time or the patience to go out and hire uneducated people and turn ‘em into something. Because they can’t get a handle on what faces them next year with Obamacare, what other regulations might be awaiting them.
So that’s Rush and Classical Studies. For my part, I didn’t really get the visceral reaction that many others seem to have had. Am I surprised that Rush buys into the suggestion that people should go to college to ‘get a job’ rather than to ‘get an education’? Not really … there are plenty of university presidents that seem to be buying into that exact model (which is, of course, why Classics departments seem to be perpetually under threat in this or that part of the world). Am I surprised that Rush links all this to the dominance of the ‘left’ in Universities? Hardly … that dominance is there and is definitely there in Humanities in general and Classics in particular (as veterans of the Classics list — the first Classics ‘social network ‘ – can attest in regards the numerous disputes we had ages ago about political posts on the list — there were plenty of folks who were clearly on that side of the spectrum; most of us (not me; I was a naive grad student) on the other side tended to be quieter and or chat amongst ourselves offlist). But the latter really is irrelevant to the issue at hand.
What did actually bother me in all this was not Rush, but the student who started this whole brouhaha. Did she honestly go into Classical Studies without a plan for employment after? Heck, my own son is currently filling out the paperwork to apply to various universities — in Classics, no less (and no, I never once suggested it to him; a couple of high school courses and he found it all to be inherently interesting, as I’m sure most of you do) — and his earliest questions were “What kind of job can I get with that?”. Does our OWS honestly consider her degree to be useless? If so, she mustn’t have been internalizing much of anything she learned in class or, perhaps she just sees her situation as an opportunity to ‘further’ the OWS movement and didn’t think much about what effect her little photo might have had on the perception of Classics.
For what it’s worth, when I first read the transcript earlier in the week (after piles of folks sent it to me via twitter, email, and facebook), I dashed off an email to Rush himself (or, more likely, to the interns who read his ‘official’ email), pointing them to one of my semi-regular features on What To Do With a Classics Degree. I kind of wish our OWS-Latin student had visited that page in the past few months and/or had followed the category tag to see that plenty of people have financial success in addition to their supposedly useless Classics degree — nay, rather, perhaps they actually have success because they have that degree. I haven’t had a response to my email, of course (not that I expected one).
So that’s my take on this whole thing — not surprised at Rush and more disappointed in the Latin student than anything else. Here’s some of the other blog reactions I’ve come across over the past few days: