Do We Really Need the Classics?: The Weekly Mentor

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by Oliver DeMille

“Oh, no, you’re one of THOSE!” the man groaned.

“One of what?” I asked.

books“One of those people who thinks classics are important in modern education,” he said. “I deal with people like you all the time. It’s really frustrating.”

The man, seated next to me at the airport, went on to tell me he is the Head of Admissions at a university in California. “What people need is jobs. That’s all modern education is about,” he continued. “Anything else is a total waste of time.”

I smiled and tried to be diplomatic. “As long as your students and parents are clear about your focus and the goals of your university, I think that’s great. People who want something different can look at other schools or become successful entrepreneurs.”

He shook his head, and I could tell he wasn’t going to let it go. “No, it’s not just our school. It’s all schools. Or at least it should be. The only path to success in the modern economy is to get a job. We have accounting majors, engineering majors, and we train teachers, nurses, doctors and attorneys. Also we have a business school. This is the only path to success nowadays.”

I laughed. “You have a really strong opinion, and I think that’s great. I just have a different view, and the statistics bear it out. Do you want to hear another view, or should we just agree to disagree?”

He smiled, and chilled out a little. “I do get intense about this,” he said. “It’s just that we’ve reached a point where the arts, humanities, history and all those things don’t prepare people for anything except flipping burgers.”

I shook my head, and his face hardened. “I really do disagree with you,” he said. “The only path to success right now is a solid degree in a sensible field that gets a person a good job!”

I nodded. “I see you really feel strongly about this. I just have one question. If what you say is true, why isn’t it working?”

“What do you mean?”

Failure to Launch

“Well, in the past three years, for example, over fifty percent of college graduates couldn’t get jobs and had to move back home with their parents.[i] In 2011, the number was reportedly 85%.[ii] And the large majority of them majored in the fields you just listed.”

“Well, that’s just the bad economy,” he said.

“Most experts disagree,” I responded. “They cite long-term structural changes in our economy—like technological shifts and increased globalization—as the cause of these changes. And these realities aren’t going to change anytime in the next few decades.

“The same problem is hurting many professional school graduates as well,” I continued. “For example, since 2009 over a third of law school graduates aren’t able to get a job, while the average law school graduate owes between $100,000 and $150,000 in student loans.”[iii]

Time noted that “applications to law school are expected to hit a 30-year low this year — down as much as 38% from 2010.”[iv]

“This trend has created a new label, Boomerang Kids, for those who leave home, successfully finish college, and simply can’t get a job to use their career training.[v] Like I said, most experts suggest that this is not just a short-term effect of the recession but a long-term trend that that will probably last for decades ahead.”[vi]

I could tell he’d heard this before, and that he didn’t have an answer for it. He sighed, nodded, and looked a little frustrated.

“On the other hand,” I continued, “the wealthy still put their children and youth in elite elementary and prep schools that emphasize classics, and they send their young adults to colleges, universities, and majors that do the same. They must know something about what really works.”

“Well, it’s easy for them,” he retorted. “They don’t have to compete in the market.”

“That’s just not true,” I was still smiling. “Perhaps they don’t have to compete for jobs, but many if not most of them eventually help run businesses that have to compete in the global market—and the competition is even harder there than in the U.S. job market. And, as their wealthy parents know, the classics are a key part of what prepares them for this competition.”

He sat back in his chair and just looked at me. “Well,” he eventually said, “most people don’t have to deal with that. They just really need a job so they can pay their bills and raise their families.”

“That’s true,” I nodded. “And thank goodness schools like yours help so many people get good job training. The sad part is that after you’ve trained them, so many of them can’t get a job in the current economy.”

He nodded. We were both happy to agree on something. “The reason the economy is bad is because too many of our leaders just don’t get it sometimes,” I continued.

He nodded again.

Back to the Future

“And the main cause of this is that too many of them haven’t closely studied history and the classics and don’t understand the cycles, trends and principles which govern the ups and downs of the economic cycle.”

The agreement was gone. He looked at me with distaste. “And you think that getting all today’s kids to read the classics would fix this?” He asked.

“Absolutely,” I said.

libraryHe looked at me in surprise, so I continued.  “Just get every college-age person today to read and understand Henry Hazlitt’s Economics in One Lesson and you’ll drastically improve the future of the economy.

“And the same thing would happen in politics if every young person today would read and really internalize The Law by Frederic Bastiat. These two books alone would change everything. They really would.”

He didn’t look convinced, but he didn’t say anything.

“Hey,” I said, “I’m not knocking what you do. I think all education has its place. I just think having great educational opportunities in many fields is best. We need great training for accountants, engineers and nurses, and also great learning opportunities for leaders through history and the great classics. Why wouldn’t we want both?”

He nodded grudgingly. “I guess I can see the merit in that. But still, most people need the more practical jobs.”

“I agree with you. But even those people will be better citizens and even better accountants and engineers if they read history and other great books. That’s what your school’s required liberal arts classes are all about, right?”

“That’s true.”

“Don’t you think the regular people deserve the same opportunity to get a leadership education that children of the elites do?” I asked.

The man smiled. “This has been an interesting conversation,” he said.

“Oh, you are one of THOSE,” I said slowly.

He actually laughed. “Maybe I am,” he pondered. “Maybe I am.”

“I’ve got a book you should read,” I told him. “Will you read it if I send it to you?”

“Yes,” he said. “You’ve made some good points. I will read it.”

“Do you have a card?”

He did.

 


[i] See, for example: Emanuella Grinberg, “College Grads and their families learn to live together,” June 27, 2012, CNN.com; Jennifer Ludden, “College Grads Struggle to Gain Financial Footing,” May 10, 2012, NPR. Or Google search: Half of college grads move home.

[ii] For example, see: “2011 College Grads Moving Home,” Huffington Post; Jessica Dickler, “”Boomerang Kids: 85% of College Grads Move Home,” May 15, 2012, CNNMoney. This statistic has been questioned, for example see Jordan Weissmann, “Here’ Exactly How Many Graduates Live Back at Home,” February 26, 2013, The Atlantic.

[iii] Adam Cohen, “Just How Bad Off Are Law School Graduates?,” March 11, 2013, Time.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] See Google search: Boomerang Kids.

[vi] See op cit., Cohen; see also “Is the Unemployment Problem Cyclical or Structural?,” CBS; “What is the New Normal Unemployment Rate?,” Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco.

****************

Image Oliver DeMille is the co-founder of the Center for Social Leadership, and a co-creator of TJEd. He is the NY Times Bestselling co-author of LeaderShift, and author of A Thomas Jefferson Education: Teaching a Generation of Leaders for the 21st Century, The Coming Aristocracy: Education & the Future of Freedom, and FreedomShift: 3 Choices to Reclaim America’s Destiny.

Oliver is dedicated to promoting freedom through Leadership Education. He and his wife Rachel are raising their eight children in Cedar City, Utah.

About the Author:

Rachel is the co-author of Leadership Education: The Phases of Learning and the audio series Core and Love of Learning: A Recipe for Success, and the author of the award-winning educational resource, This Week in History. She is an accomplished musician, writer, literary editor, public speaker, consultant and momschool organizer.

12 Comments

  1. Malissa September 25, 2013 at 9:30 am - Reply

    Because of what you are doing with Orrin, our family is getting a classical education. Our three children are still in public school, but we can now give them a classical education along with the basics from public school. Thanks Oliver, for everything.

  2. Nicole September 25, 2013 at 6:39 pm - Reply

    My husband has two degrees and can’t replace the government job he lost over a year ago. He worked for the county for 13 years and they decided to cut cost and run off all their older employees. They can hire younger guys returning from Iraq for less money and get government incentives.
    We decided 3 years ago are classically educate our children! I think they will have the advantage my husband doesn’t have.

  3. KellyJack Nelson September 25, 2013 at 7:32 pm - Reply

    I’m one of “those” also. Glad you’re on our side in this battle. Thanks for everything you do.

  4. Laura September 25, 2013 at 8:47 pm - Reply

    Awesome! I second Malissa – Thank you , Oliver and Rachel, for everything

    So. . .what’s the book?

  5. Rocio September 25, 2013 at 10:53 pm - Reply

    Well done Dr. DeMille!!!
    It seems like God put this man in your path so you could help him see a broader view of education.
    While it is true that it is important for our kids to be able to become self sufficient adults, having a job is not the only way to accomplish this. Having the ability to have a job is also not enough to keep the freedoms we have in this country either.
    We just watched The Hobart Shakespeareans. I love the scene when Rafe (the teacher) is reading Huck Finn to the kids and it is such a moving part that they cry. It is one thing to say: Society tells you to dress, think, speak, behave in a certain way- but this is often not the right way to do things …VS. a story that vividly shows a boy making a tough choice to follow what he knows in his heart is right.
    I feel that classics teach many lessons at a deeper level. How could they be outdated?
    Of course I’m “preaching to the choir”.

  6. Kevin D. Jones September 26, 2013 at 6:53 am - Reply

    “…successfully finish college, and simply can’t get a job to use their career training.”

    Although that is what the statistics say, if they can’t work after they finish college, has their college journey been successful? We would all agree that the answer is no.

    Then they go find “just a job” and stay in that for the duration of their careers, never feeling like they can rise above “corporate cog” status.

    So many people have the same story, and it is a sad one to hear. Then, of course, that mentality of college-to-career is passed on to their children and the problem is multiplied.

    As we know, success in a career isn’t finding a steady job, but one that we love and can make a difference. Here’s to you and all the others who are helping build the future leaders of the world.

  7. MAnderson September 26, 2013 at 9:03 am - Reply

    Love this article. The respectful and cunning way in which you opened up dialogue is impressive. Keep sharing with us and others. You are doing great work.

  8. Carmella Young September 26, 2013 at 1:39 pm - Reply

    J – Just
    O – Over
    B – Broke

  9. Rachel Keppner September 26, 2013 at 3:05 pm - Reply

    Great post about a great conversation! 🙂

  10. iczey October 3, 2013 at 12:37 am - Reply

    What a good read. I learned a lot from this. Kudos!

  11. Kristi May 30, 2017 at 8:50 am - Reply

    What was the book you sent him?

    • Rachel DeMille May 30, 2017 at 9:03 am - Reply

      “A Thomas Jefferson Education: Teaching a Generation of Leaders for the Twenty-first Century”.

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