Rush Limbaugh and Classical Studies

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:

8 thoughts on “Rush Limbaugh and Classical Studies

  1. I see that the student’s message is transcribed incorrectly.

    The quotes are omitted in the phrase ‘a useless degree in classical studies’. They make a difference. The student herself doesn’t think that it’s useless, she thinks that others consider it useless.

    Also she says, ‘I am on track to graduate with highest Latin honors’, not just ‘to graduate with Latin’.

    1. I’m not sure such details would really make much difference in the ‘big picture’ of the point Rush is trying to make to his demographic. I personally would love to revisit this, say, a year from now, and see what the student ends up doing with her degree, “useless’ or not.

      1. Your whole post seems to boil down to the point that poor old Rush is only saying what his listeners want to hear, so we shouldn’t be to hard on him.

        That seems to me a pretty weak defense.

      2. I’m not saying we shouldn’t be hard on him; I’m saying we really shouldn’t be surprised that he said it. What we should be surprised at is the Latin student providing him with the opportunity

  2. What came to my mind, actually, from the girl’s sign, was my own experience as a Classics BA (from Penn, no less). I did take a year and found a job, but am now in graduate school. During the time I was looking for a job, I found that anything I wanted to do that was related to my degree required an MA at least. I don’t think this trend is unique to Classics — many of my friends with Wharton degrees are either in some graduate school program, have recently graduated, or considered it. (I suspect the same would apply for a Communications student who, say, wants to work on radio.) I’d like to dig, a la Socrates, into the idea of what is a “good” job, because I have my own thoughts about that (e.g. is a “good” job one that creates wealth, and does Rush’s wealth indicate the fundamental “goodness” of his own job?); as for “good” majors, I think it is silly and naive in this economy, with the tendencies towards favoring older people or those with more advanced degrees, to think that any college major short of nursing guarantees a solid, stable, satisfying job. So I think what you’re getting at — that the student comes across as frivolous and entitled, and opens the door wide for Rush to interpret the 99% meme across the board as also frivolous and entitled — is relevant.

  3. After I received my B.A. in Classics (with no debt and no courses in education) thirty years ago, I easily found employment in a private school. It was my first interview, and I was offered the job on the spot. While I was building up a Latin program from scratch, I also taught English and mathematics, which was my minor. I was satisfied with the pay, which was close to the national average for public school teachers. I later had to move, and once again, I was offered a job on the spot at the first school where I interviewed. Many of my students have gone to college, majored in classics, and entered a variety of professions, such as law, medicine, journalism, business, teaching, the military, and linguistics.

    I think Rush Limbaugh’s larger point was that there are a number of useless degrees out there, especially many of those that are not in the traditional liberal arts. Rush erred in choosing classical studies rather than something like leisure studies as an example. Even the liberal arts attract many student who are not that devoted to their particular field of study and do not read anything outside of course requirements.

    The ugly truth is that many students majoring in the liberal arts today and accruing staggering debt will have trouble find the employment that will enable them to pay off their debt and have a comfortable standard of living. The exception will be those who continue their education by going to professional schools like law, medicine, and business.

    I believe Rush’s larger point was correct. He did not make it as well as he could have, but that’s to be expected sometimes from someone who spends fifteen hours per week on the air.

  4. There is a lot of truth in what Rush says about people falling for the propaganda that the institution known as education has them believe: college degree is the ticket to a good job, good career, good life, and the pursuit of happiness. Yet Rush also falls into a paradox with his Limbaughean Ideology: for does he not sound like the very ‘conspiracy theorist’ he so much condemns when he claims that the Government and/or Universities deliberately lie to students with their jobless/careerless potential degrees such as Classical Studies? True, this may not be a degree with many job opportunities, but most Classical Studies majors seek to become scholars or journalists and they usually find success via self publication – the very entrepreneurial spirit Rush so much condones. Funny, eh!

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