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How To Ruin Your Life

Alert reader Dan Shea drew Via Meadia‘s attention to an unusually depressing article in the Boston Globe.  It is one of those fluffy and airheaded “lifestyle” pieces, the print equivalent of empty calorie junk food and like many such articles it provides a horrifying glimpse into the vacuous nature of the modern American mind.  In this particular case, the reporter, who hopefully is affecting rather than spontaneously producing prose redolent of relentless stupidity, shares her view of 10 “awesome” classes at Boston area colleges that she thinks her readers would like to take.

A couple of them, we hasten to observe, look both useful and good.  The MIT course taking first year mechanical engineering students through the entire process of toy design seems a bit out of place on this list.  And we also note that the actual classes may have more substance than our chipper journalist reports.  But some “awesome” courses look like the kind of academic malpractice that help so many American kids emerge from four years of “education” with massive debt loads, major attitude problems, and no marketable skills.  Consider:

“Staging American Women: The Culture of Burlesque”. Burlesque is a complex and alluring underground culture — and sexy, too, of course. Think about tassels for a moment — are you blushing? Then you might want to skip out on a course that involves discussing pin-ups and early sexploitation films. Your loss.

It is hard to know which is more disturbing, here: that a college can accept student loan money for a course like this without being charged with financial fraud or the vapid thinking and limp prose that Globe editors evidently think belongs in their newspaper.  Or consider this piece of awesomeness from the same college (Emerson, where tuition and fees run to more than $30,000 a year, and almost half of those who apply are admitted):

“Puppetry”. “The course culminates in the construction of puppets for in-class presentations,” which is really all you need to know. Plus, puppets are pretty popular right now. I’ll be the first to say it: This class will make you a hit with the ladies.

Or there is our fatuous writer’s top suggestion, a useful course on the history of surfing:

Surfing and American Culture“. As a Massachusetts native, I have a bit of trouble picturing the impact surfing has had on American culture beyond that Beach Boys song and Point Break. This class will take the uninitiated through the history of surfing up to the present day, as well as examine its role as a major economic force. And include field trips? Just a suggestion.

(Again, one wonders when the Globe decided that soggy, tasteless mush like this was publishable content.  Either the writer or the editor of this piece and quite possibly both clearly spent much too much time in college taking classes like the ones being praised here.)

As Via Meadia looked at these course descriptions, and reflected that all over America students are borrowing tens of thousands of dollars a year to attend expensive schools and then blowing the money on glittering fripperies like these, we were reminded of a book title we came across in our long vanished youth: How to Make Yourself Miserable.  It occurs to us that there is an infallible recipe for making yourself miserable, and that many young people in this country are following it — some, perhaps, without knowing that that is what they are doing.

So, inspired by this list of awesome courses, here is a sure-fire way to make yourself miserably unhappy in your twenties.

First, enroll in a college that you cannot afford, and rely on large student loans to make up the difference.

Second, spend the next four years having as good a time as possible: hang out, hook up, and above all, take plenty of “awesome” courses.

Third, find teachers and role models who will encourage you to develop an attitude of enlightened contempt for ordinary American middle class life, the world of business, and such bourgeois virtues as self-reliance, thrift, accountability and self-discipline.  Specialize in sarcasm and snark.

Fourth, avoid all courses with tough requirements, taking only the minimum required number of classes in science, math and foreign languages.

Fifth, never think about acquiring marketable skills.

Sixth, when you graduate and discover that you have to repay the loans and cannot get a job that pays enough to live comfortably while servicing your debts, be surprised.  Blame society.  Demand that the government or your parents or evil corporations bail you out.

Seventh, expect anyone (except for other clueless losers who’ve been as stupid and wasteful as you) to sympathize with your plight, or to treat you with anything but an infuriating mixture of sorrow, pity and contempt.

If you follow this recipe faithfully, Via Meadia promises that you will achieve all the unhappiness you want.  And don’t worry; anytime you feel sad and blue, just read some “lifestyle” journalism in the Boston Globe.  It will be sure to cheer you up.

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  • lls404

    This reminds me of an article written by Kevin Roose on November 21, 2011 in “Deal Book” on the NY Times website, “A Blow to Pinstripe Aspirations”: The entire article, in Deal Book no less, was pure naivite, but in particular this paragraph on Meek was completely infuriating: “Recently, Mr. Meek and his roommate, another unemployed banker who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he did not want to jeopardize his job search, sat together in the kitchen filing for unemployment and drinking a bottle of Champagne.” I suggested that Mr. Roose receive some cross training doing reporting from the south side of Chicago or an equally desperate location. I do not think my comment was published. Ironically, the New York Times owns the Boston Globe.

  • higgins1990

    Eight: vote Democrat.

  • Jordan

    “A couple of them, we hasten to observe, look both useful and good. The MIT course taking first year mechanical engineering students through the entire process of toy design seems a bit out of place on this list.”

    Useful, good, and damned difficult too I would imagine.

  • silverfiddle


    I may be unduly optimistic, but I think more and more Americans are wising up to this racket.

    A quality education is priceless. Much of what out degree factories are churning out today is worthless.

  • bob sykes

    Whenever I read one of these stories, several thoughts occur to me.

    First, the students who enroll in fluff courses are willfully ignorant, and willful ignorance is morally curable. That they graduate with useless degrees, unemployable and indebted, is simple justice. We would do society a service if we would hold them up to public ridicule and mockery.

    Second, it is the faculty who offer these courses that are the direct beneficiaries of the student loans. The loans pay their salaries and benefits and numerous perks. Can those faculty be so self-deluded as to think that they are providing something of value in exchange for the money? Or are they knowing charlatans and frauds?

    Finally, the situation is not all dark. Such courses kept the willfully ignorant students out of my classes so that my very limited teaching skills were not wasted on them.

  • dearieme

    I enjoyed my fresher chem lab. A modern version could be introduced with a more, shall we say, Darwinian thrust.

  • Matt

    Was just thinking the same thing recently when I read this article about a class on the rapper Jay Z…–georgetown-sociology-course-focuses-on-rap-star-jay-z/2011/11/01/gIQA0KLkgM_story.html

  • Kansas Scott

    Loved it! So much so that I’ve sent an email with its link to my children at various stages of post, current and pre-college.

    It’s what my genetic code demands. When I was in college, my mother mailed various Ann Lander’s columns that she was sure I would find helpful and life-changing. Unfortunately, the same genetic code that requires our family to send these things to our children also is encoded to require that the children roll their eyes and ignore it.

    That’s how I ended up taking a course called “Literature of Sexual Love” (name a 19-year old male who could resist?) taught by a self-described Wiccan. My entire grade was based on my paper entitled “Chinese Foot Binding: Cruel or Erotic?”. Good stuff, don’t you think?

    Yet, the angels were watching over me and I managed to get a good education despite my efforts. Yet these trap classes continue to entice the young and clueless away from a meaningful education. It is a lot less funny today with the cost of those mistakes so high both in terms of dollars and opportunities.

    I am sure my children will enjoy my passed-along wisdom.

  • Tom Holsinger

    Surfing has had a major impact on Caliornia’s regional culture. My cousin Bolton Colburn, a former professional surfer, resigned this year as long-time Director of the Laguna Art Museum, where he created a mini-museum of surfing history, a show of the influence of custom cars and art rods on art, etc.

    Bo’s father Samuel Colburn (my uncle Sam) was an artist of the Carmel school.

    WRM might also talk to Victor Davis Hanson about the surfing traditions of multiple University of California campuses, starting with Santa Cruz.

  • Cheves

    Oh, well, yeah, but I am SURE some prof will offer a hazy, academic-speak justification for each of these.

    Take the burlesque. Professor Heather Milton-Smith-Brown, PhD, says, “By examining the modalities of sexual presentment and presentation, we explore the dualities of structural exploitation in metaculture and the use of gender in dualities. The tassel, for instance, was a patriarchal shame modalism designed to exploit the dualities of the modality’s mode.”

  • WigWag

    “A couple of them, we hasten to observe, look both useful and good. The MIT course taking first year mechanical engineering students through the entire process of toy design seems a bit out of place on this list.” (Walter Russell Mead)

    Via Meadia is absolutely right not to dismiss the MIT “Toy Lab” out of hand. The “Toy Lab” is actually quite a remarkable place. When some people think of toys, their vision is limited to “barbies” and video games but actually, the utility of toys go well beyond that. The MIT “Toy Lab” designs toys to help rehabilitate youngsters with developmental disabilities and seniors suffering from dementia. It also designs “toys” intended to help navy pilots improve their skills and games designed to make teaching children to read more fun.

    MIT is uniquely equipped to do this and it would be a mistake to assume that young MIT students are getting an inferior education because this is what they spend a portion of their undergraduate years focusing on.

    MIT has a number of “labs” like the “Toy Lab.” Perhaps the most well known is the MIT “Media Lab” which is truly an extraordinary place. Anyone who visits the Media Lab will understand instantly why the United States still leads the world in marrying technology to creativity. In fact, mating technology and creativity is an area that no other nation in the world can even come close to competing with our country. The Chinese and Japanese can’t; the Indian’s can’t; the Europeans can’t and the Brazilians and Turks certainly can’t. This is a talent that the United States needs to invest in, not disparage.

    MIT should be commended for its efforts in this area, not mocked.

    When it comes to a university education, as overpriced as it is, MIT is probably one of the very few universities in the United States where students might actually get what they pay for (or their parents pay for).

  • cja

    I agree with the above comments about MIT.
    The MIT course is an excellent mix of creativity, innovation and applied engineering, and a good way to introduce the students to team work too. From what I saw, it produced some very original and marketable toys

  • Eurydice

    Oh, you poor dear – is this your first experience with The Boston Globe’s mushy prose? Regular readers have been remarking the steady decline ever since it was bought by the New York Times. I’m surprised your alert reader managed to stay alert long enough to reach the lifestyle pages…excuse me, I mean, “The G Section.”

  • David in Cal

    I agree with this post. However, I must admit that many of the higher mathematics courses I took during 5 years of graduate school are even more useless than puppetry.

  • Sigivald

    that a college can accept student loan money for a course like this without being charged with financial fraud

    In fairness to the college, I doubt they ever claim that that class will be remunerative or useful. But you can take it to fill some stupid elective.

    (As for puppetry, well… if it’s in a theater arts program, I don’t see the problem.

    Puppet making and operation is a real, if specialized skill.

    The reporting on it makes it seem pathetic, and it’s possible that the class itself is so, but I’m more inclined to blame the reporter, on its face.)

  • DirtCrashr

    Here in the Bay Area I could go to Community College to learn an elevated level of irony, sarcasm, and snark — but if I’ve already spent grades 7-12 mastering it in Public schools a the AP level, why bother?
    My pre-Calculus professor at UC Santa Cruz back in ’79(?) did a few lectures on the shape of the perfect wave, he was an old German surfer-dude. As an early victim of New Math and the SMSG curriculum in my formative years (Palo Alto), my snarky inability to further deal with squiggly shaped number-forms since grade school meant I failed pre-calculus twice, good thing we got “Evaluations” and not actual grades! Go Banana-Slugs!

  • Denver

    Half the country has less than average intelligence (by definition). Yet, we have to make sure “every child has a world class college prep education”.

    Is it any wonder that the [garbage], as described above, isn’t more widespread?

  • billo

    This is silly cherry picking. In fact, there’s nothing wrong with teaching (or taking) a *course* whose only benefit is that one finds it interesting. When I was in college, I took courses in Haiku, Myceneaen archaeology, Social Novel, Racquetball, Tennis, and many others. That didn’t stop me from getting a degree in Microbiology, and eventually, degrees in Medicine and Computer Science.

    There’s nothing wrong with taking courses in physical training in college; in fact it’s a good thing. And there’s no reason to condemn surfing compared to raquetball or football. There’s nothing wrong with learning something you like *in addition* to your “marketable” skill. It’s important to take “practical” courses in college — but it’s also important to learn things that are interesting for their own sakes. Trade schools are good, but this idea that *only* trade school teaching should be done is simply silly.

  • CrazyGaloot

    Big Wednesday is a much better surf movie

  • werbaz neutron

    Looking back, one of the more “useful” college courses I took as an undergraduate was a course in “report writing.” Much imparted there, by osmosis perhaps, was useful during my subsequent travels through an M.B.A. and a Ph.D. in economics. Point is, titles, description even, may be deceiving. But the point of this article is certainly taken nevertheless.

  • Gerry N.

    When I was three, my mom began teaching me to read. I could sound out the words and understand what was written in the weekly newspaper “GRIT” long before I was four. I entered the first grade, (no kindergarten, it cost too much) fully literate and owning my own budding library at home. I could also do bacic arithmetic, adding, subtracting, multiplying and dividing, including long division at that time. I remember the books used in class boring me to tears, so I went to the town library on Saturdays, to check out books I wanted to readd, Moby Dick, The Call of the Wild, Most of Mark Twain, Edgar Rice Boroughs, the poetry of Robert Service and Rudyard Kipling. Who needed a toy to make reading fun?

    There are far too many over-indoctrinated and under-EDUCATED people teaching these days. You are the morons I’m speaking to: BOOKS make reading fun. Not toys, you simpletons.

    I know anecdotes do not equal data, but the only PHd I know personally is over 50 unemployed, unemployable having no marketable skills and deeply in debt, over 1/4 million dollars. He will never in his lifetime own a home, have a wife or kids, he doesn’t even have a car. He works sometimes at temp. jobs, his big earning period is Christmas time even though he professes to be an atheist. The Irony, she burns.

    His Doctorate is in American Indian Studies, proving once more the utter uselesness of any path of endeavor which includes in it’s name the word: “Studies”. He does get invited to some very “interesting” parties though. Too bad they can’t be made remunaritive. The only positive things are free snacks and booze. I drive him around sometimes and get to go. I really like the shrimp platters, and infrequently, the caviar. I really like caviar and have no cumpunctions about the quantities I consume. I can’t abide Champaign, but can really put away the red wines and mixed drinks.

  • Perry

    Our local university’s German department this semester offered a course in German fairy tales – taught in English.
    There’s some learning. No offense to The Grimms.

  • kevino

    RE: higgins1990 says: Eight: vote Democrat.

    Nine: Join Occupy Wall Street or Occupy Boston to get others to pay for your mistakes.

    Line from an old movie: “Life is hard. It’s really hard when you’re stupid.”

  • kidneystones

    I read the article. Your take seems to me unduly and unjustifiably harsh. The author is emphatically not writing about courses that might make one more employable. Instead, the author lists courses that the average twenty-something or older might find enjoyable. You may have preferred the author write about the virtues of hard work. Instead, the author wrote about having fun.

    That bothers you. It shouldn’t.

  • orthodoc

    To be fair, I don’t think an editor ever looks at this. According to the explanation: “This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
    The author is solely responsible for the content.”

    The author is “Vanessa Formato is a 22-year-old Clark University graduate, freelance journalist, vegan cupcake enthusiast and video game aficionado. She blogs about body image and tweets about puppies. So awesome, even John Stamos is impressed.”

    I do agree that the article is unusually vacuous, even for the Glob.

  • Nate Whilk

    I’m sure Mr. Mead realizes there’ve been similar lists around. For example, Ben Stein wrote a series of short books about how to ruin various aspects of one’s life. I think the first may have originated as an article he wrote. An excerpt of one book:

    billo December 7, 2011 at 7:22 pm wrote, “This is silly cherry picking. In fact, there’s nothing wrong with teaching (or taking) a *course* whose only benefit is that one finds it interesting. When I was in college, I took courses in Haiku, Myceneaen archaeology, Social Novel, Racquetball, Tennis, and many others. That didn’t stop me from getting a degree in Microbiology, and eventually, degrees in Medicine and Computer Science.”

    You were obviously an exceptional student. For the average student, a course in puppetry or “Surfing and American Culture” is a distraction, and having it taught at a college gives it a degree of approval and academic respect it does not deserve. IMHO of course.

  • DRJ

    This is so true, and I especially enjoyed “Specialize in sarcasm and snark.” Smug superiority doesn’t last long once real life hits.

  • TL

    The goofy elective options need to be kept in perspective. At most schools, once you’ve hit the 12-14 credit hours a term to become a full time student any extra classes are free. When the rest of your schedule invoves a 300 level math class, a 300 level physics class, and a couple of 300-400 computer science classes, tossing in a silly elective can keep you sane. Especially when that is the only course on your schedule containing more than 5% women.

  • slyt9gfvtg0pil

    I think you are misjudging the purpose of college. For students in elite schools it is not to get an education. It is to meet good old boys while they are still young.

    In high school I took advanced placement classes in chemistry, physics, english, and calculus. I was better educated when I graduated high school than any other time in my life. I had latin for 5 years starting in junior high. I took courses you would approve of in college – a top technical university, but it was all specialization. I went on to get a masters degree in a scientific discipline. When I started work it was in engineering in a completely different field. I used skills I developed on my own. Cost of college: tens of thousands of dollars, value of a good education (by your definition of good) $0.

    If a student is getting a masters in fine arts there is nothing wrong with a class in puppetry.

    I admit the surfing class makes no sense to me. But engineering colleges require humanities electives. It is only personal bias that would suppose Jane Eyre is superior to the Beach Boys.

    The men who founded this country were educated in logic, rhetoric, greek, and hebrew. Would you approve of such an education today? How do those subjects give a student employable skills? We need men like our country’s founders today, not more weeny geeks of the like you prefer and which we are infested with today.

    The real problem is not the curriculum it is the price. Colleges have to raise tuition to keep their reputation up along side the elite schools.

  • JL

    Your demeaning and simplistic view of “many young people in this country” is quite astonishing. Granted, the Globe article was atrocious, but what a giant leap you took! As a recent college graduate, I can tell you that I and most of my friends didn’t follow much of your “recipe.” Some of us young people went to state schools we could afford, studied math and foreign languages, and worked throughout college. Shame on you for contributing to the anti-youth discourse in this country. Too many people are diminishing an entire generation into a bunch of technology-obsessed, over-educated, parasitic children. Don’t forget that America’s young people are those leading the Occupy protests and dying in unjust wars.

    • Walter Russell Mead

      @JL: not sure why you think I’m saying this behavior is characteristic of a generation.

  • Joey

    Your points about the lame college courses are excellent. But this piece won’t appear in the Boston Globe print edition. Here’s the note at the bottom: “This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
    The author is solely responsible for the content.” So it’s basically an unpaid contributor that the Globe’s website aggregates. Still, it’s awful, simplistic, trite stuff.

    • Walter Russell Mead

      @Joey. The decision not to edit is an editorial decision. If the editors of the Globe permit this sort of sludge to go out, they own it.

  • Corlyss

    Momma Mia! What vacuity prevails! No wonder colleges are cranking blithering idiots, devoid of historical consciousness and civic necessities! The real mystery is that the federal government under Barry O is harassing for-profit schools while allowing public monies to be spent on empty-headed nonsense like this.

  • Tom Holsinger


    One quarter of PE was mandatory in my day, so I took Sailing. The instructor was so delighted to learn that I wouldn’t bend his boat even when docking in fog that he got smashed every week we went out, and let me handle the boat while he instructed the others. We all had a grand time.

    Stevenson 1971

  • Gringo

    “Staging American Women: The Culture of Burlesque”

    Sounds like a course to take at one of the free universities- are they still around? Certainly not worth dropping a couple of thousand on.

    Whoever takes this course at a regular university has not asked himself the question: would you PAY for such a course? If someone else were paying for the course- why not take it?

    A lot of students may have viewed the loans – which they ultimately pay for- not as loans, but as grants or scholarships.

    Bad mistake.

  • Bookdoc

    I did my senior thesis on Burlesque shows. They were the “weed out” road trips for performers back in the old days. People in vaudeville often came from burlesque and some performers went back when they had no bookings. A lot of theatre innovations came out of burlesque houses-mostly out of necessity. I imagine comics now have open mike nights and comedy clubs to get started in the business. A lot of the big stand up comedians came from burlesque.

  • Whiggish Boffin

    The common theme of the seven rules is:

    Never do anything that would interfere with getting high.

    (Nothing mathematical. You can’t learn a logical sequence if you’ve baked your short-term memory.)
    (Nothing that uses tools. You’d cut off a body part and say “Whoa. Bummer.”)
    (Nothing that requires striving to improve, evaluating performance against a standard, or too much showing up. Bad vibes, dude.)
    (Nothing that leads people to rely on you. Hassle, man.)
    (Nothing that would lead to a drug-tested occupation. Security clearance? Srsly?)

  • Done Gone Galt

    I have often wondered if these courses exist primarily for the reasons my children have used them. Working a minimum of 25 and an occasional 40 or more hours a week while carrying 9 to 10 credit hours of solid subjects can be a real strain on time and energy. Yet 12 credit hours can have significant financial, and in particular tax advantages for those who choose not to take on debt. Under the right circumstances (especially with grants or scholarships) a well chosen fluff course can benefit the pocketbook as well as the GPA.

  • New Class Traitor

    No there is nothing wrong with a humanities EDUCATION — as Dr. Mead obviously agrees. (I wonder what percentage of the attendees in the “burlesque” or “surfing” classes (or the pr0n classes at UCSB) would be able to pass a rigorous curriculum in “rhetoric, Latin, Greek, Hebrew”…?)

    The problem is we have a youth that is over-CREDENTIALED and under-EDUCATED. If we insist (as a massive New Class make-work program) that everybody deserves/needs a college degree — including the 50% of people that by definition have below-average IQs — classes in fluff and college ‘graduates’ that are functionally innumerate and fail college level reading comprehension tests are the logical end result.

    And you know what? Mixed up with the entitlement generation there are the kids that work their way through college and generally bust their derrieres — and they get tarred with the same brush as the hookup generation around them.

    Inflation — of currency or degrees — punishes the thrifty and rewards the irresponsible.

  • Jerry steinfeld

    How to Ruin Your Life, also a book by Ben Stein. If you waste 3 credits a semester on fluff, 20% of your money is being wasted.
    Good start on ruining your life.

  • koblog

    WRM, keep writing like this and you’ll be drummed out of the Democrat Party for sure.

  • DrTorch

    There is an entire degree program at BGSU called “Leisure Studies”. They outdid themselves with that one.

    And to think I was staying up til 2am doing p-chem homework.

  • Tim

    Maybe the Globe article is frivolous – I haven’t read it – , and maybe the courses described are a waste of money and everyone who takes any of them will end up in the gutter full of regret. Maybe.

    But even assuming that’s true does it really make those ill-informed teenagers who chose to take the courses “stupid wasteful clueless losers”? Perhaps as parents, and tutors, and as a society we should advise them better.

    Maybe we should spend more time and money popularising maths and science, and employing those who did see the merits. Perhaps that would be more constructive than your offensiveness and your “contempt”.

  • RedWell

    I typically admire Via Media, but this commentary is not useful.

    1) Pick one: sniping about bad journalism or silly college courses. Don’t conflate the two into some analytiaclly useless nexus of “what’s wrong with America!”

    2) Be honest, WRM, how many “marketable” skills did you enjoy upon graduation? And no, for the average student, writing hardly counts: employers, those paragons of our free market, bootstrap society have little interest in smart kids with a well-rounded education. They don’t want good citizens, they want people who will get to work right away, not rock the boat, and make them money.

    3) Yes, higher ed is full of foolishness, but by criticizing it by way of anecdotes and a clearly non-random sameple of “fun” courses, you perpetuate the kind of slipshod thinking you hope to malign. Apply your liberal arts education and be better than that.

  • Claire

    These sound like classes from the Adult Education catalog at the local community college. Yow.
    Can’t relate. I had exactly 5 classes that weren’t math or science related getting an engineering degree in 4 years: Psychology 101, Philosophy 101, Anthropology 101, Technical Writing and Western Literature. That’s it.

    Even then, still some time for beer and fun. The two don’t have to be mutually exclusive.

  • Dave H

    This is just lies and fraud. I just don’t believe that there are any colleges where ANY minimum number of science, math or foreign language course are REQUIRED.

  • Flyguy

    emerson is dedicated to the performing arts – the notion that a course in puppetry could not lead to a well-paying job (i.e. the muppets) shows that you should stick to an analysis of prose rather than the facest of a liberal arts education

  • lukuj

    I have friends whose kids took classes like that and majored in things like dance. They ended up working at Starbucks or as secretaries if they got jobs at all. Most had to go back to school and get majors that actually made them employable. They all regret wasting the money and time on the courses now, but of course their advisors never bothered to clue them in and they wouldn’t listen to their parents, who should have refused to pay for the courses if they were paying the bills.

  • richard40

    These courses do look pretty frivilous, but I wouldn’t condemn them completely. If you are taking mostly solid STEM courses, and take one of these fripperies each semester as an interesting diversion, you should do OK. It might even allow you to interact with some people that you ordinarily would not meet in your real courses. The problems come when a student takes nothing but friperies.

    A constructive thing colleges could do is to have a special course category called diversion course, for courses that are fun, and popular, but not very practical. Anybody paying with student loans would not be allowed to take more than one diversion course per semester.

  • Hap Aziz

    There are important points that need to be made here, yet they do not seem to be getting through to a large part of segment of the population. It isn’t enough to “get a degree”; they type of degree and skills a student acquires will determine a lot of things about his or her subsequent degree path.

    I similarly discuss this topic in my blog, but from the standpoint of the Education Bubble:

  • Vanessa Formato

    I’m the writer of the article and I figured I’d join in on the conversation just to make a few of points.

    1) Most of these classes, if you went to the course listings that are linked, are described more fully and there’s some indication of their purpose within their respective majors. For instance, puppetry is a theater-arts class, not just a random joke.

    2) The Next Great Generation Boston is a blog and we are not technically Boston Globe writers, even though they host us.

    3) This was meant as a fluffy, fun piece about weird classes. The classes I chose were not representative of any of the colleges and took a lot of digging to get to in some cases. Harvard isn’t overrun with classes where you watch popular television shows or anything. Plus, I’m sure a lot of these course names and descriptions have at least something to do with drawing interest and are more serious than they seem/I tried to make them sound.

  • David

    First of all, I would like to preface my response to this article by stating that I am a 21 year old undergraduate University student of Traditional Mathematics. In addition, I studied business at a prestigious school in the same University for three years, achieved very high marks and decided on my own to deviate from the business path to that of Mathematics. Now:

    While, sir, you make some fine points about the hypocrisy of a person earning an undergraduate degree in English and then being burdened with mountains of debt, there are more elements in play than the ignorance of our rising college graduates. Indeed, I would counter that the collegiate system itself is where much of the blame should be placed.

    When I was growing up in Middle Class America it was engrained into my mind that going to college was an absolute necessity if I wished to build a suitable career (and legacy) for myself as an adult. Thus, when I first came to college, I enrolled in a prestigious school of business (We’ll call it SoB) so as to teach myself, as you said, “marketable skills.” However, after several years of studying I found that many (not all, but most) of the business courses I took had a very light workload and did not require much insight or ingenuity. I therefore decided to enroll in the school of Mathematics (we’ll call it SoM) so as to be more challenged.

    Now, this is my main point (and I promise I’m almost done): While I, like many, despised my first major, I changed to another STILL marketable major. Thus, when I graduate college, I will still have a job and add to our nation’s wealth. However, from a holistic sense, ‘college’ itself is an academic idea. It was founded on the idea that people study ideas and create new ones. Therefore, if a student is studying anthropology, Greek studies, music, etc…than they’re simply furthering the scholastic progress of humanity.

    The problem, I believe, is that colleges are now branded and marketed like products. Nowadays people get college degrees to get jobs as graduates. Thus, according to this fact, a college degree should illustrate one’s knowledge of a trade and skill in the workforce. However, THAT IS NOT what college was founded for. Rather, it’s what the purpose of college has become. If a student wishes to learn about a topic, all that he or she needs to do is visit a library.

    Thus, while I agree with the main point of your article, I also believe that the “business” of college is what causes these economic paradoxes; not the open minded (albeit naive) people who learn unmarketable skills during their time there.

  • Owen Glendower

    Congrats to Vanessa for responding.

    However, if you want an example of academic fraud…a relative of mine knows a young person who recently graduated with a degree in Recreational Camp Management. 4-year degree program, he tells me.

  • Peter

    The flaw in your entire rant is that you assume that students would take only classes like these. Show me curriculum requirements that would actually allow this, and then I’ll give your rant some merit.

  • Justin

    I loved the article, and absolutely agree! However, to play devil’s advocate a little- the schools themselves have some culpability here too. As someone who did 6 years in the military in order to pay for college, and am now paying out of pocket to get an MBA, I look at college expenses and life skills a little differently. This is why i was completely incensed when my graduate adviser told me I had to take a round of “core” classes required by the university- such as “education, community and self” and “information literacy.” Really, passing managerial economics doesn’t provide enough proof of my “informational literacy?” The schools are a business, and they encourage these classes so they can get your money. When it’s loan money or from mom and dad, most people dont blink an eye. That is the true disconnect in education- educating people to be even remotely useful working class citizens should not be a for-profit enterprise.

    P.S. for all of those people who are going to say “what, you want the government to run all of education!?” I say no, I don’t. But there has to be a better way.

  • Laura

    Mr. Mead and Mr. Shea, please relax. You had it all figured out in just the first paragraph: it’s a fluffy lifestyle piece. And that’s okay. Believe it or not, sometimes people like to read things that are funny and don’t take themselves too seriously. And sometimes college students like to take classes, just once in a while, that are both fun and useful.

    Also, Owen: mock the Recreational Camp Management program all you want, but I see that as a response to exactly what many older folks are complaining about in modern higher education. He went to school, applied himself for four years, and came out with applicable skills in a specialized work setting. Maybe you’re excellent at managing hundreds of fourth-graders and keeping them fed, sheltered, safe, and entertained for a solid week, I don’t know, but I’d definitely learn a lot from a program like that.

  • Rachel

    @Paul.abarge – Exactly what was linking to Vanessa’s picture supposed to prove?

    In general I think everyone upset by this should get a sense of humor. Not everything ever written needs to be a serious somber piece of rigorous research. Sometimes people like to be entertained as well.

  • Rich Rostrom

    The difficulty is that surfing and burlesque are both cultural phenomena of real significance in American history. A really deep and disciplined exploration of either would (IMO) find connections to important widely-held underlying attitudes about sex, or to economic patterns.
    A student of medieval Europe could learn a lot from the who-how-when-why of knightly tournaments. One can’t really understand ancient Rome and its Byzantine successor without covering chariot racing. The blackface “minstrel” shows of the 1800s reflected and influenced whole areas of U.S. culture.

    However (again IMO) this sort of exploration is for serious graduate-level seminars in history and cultural anthropology.

  • John David Galt

    Between nonsense courses, nonsensical requirements (many students shun math and science courses because they can lower GPAs) and the leftist hooey (PC speech codes and ridiculous definitions of rape) most campuses now impose on their students, many students *would* rather avoid the whole corrupt system.

    The problem is that we don’t yet have a workable substitute that the job market will accept.

    Whoever develops one first will get rich, if the feds don’t outlaw it because it interferes with their plan to “reeducate” everyone into good little Communists.

  • Themistocles

    A few weeks ago I read about a woman complaining that even with a PhD she couldn’t land a job.

    Her PhD was in German Polka Dancing.

  • boardsnbikes

    Despite the remarks above, “fluff” courses do have their place. Many years ago as a comp sci major taking five difficult courses in comp sci, mathematics, schematics, etc., I needed a less taxing “soft” course to fulfill my 18 credits for the semester. Another tough course would have been impossible.

    I fondly remember my “Criminology: Abnormal Psychology” and “Monuments of Central Park” courses. The courses had little homework, little study and most importantly, provided a wealth of interesting knowledge when other people weren’t interested optimized tree structures for searching indices. The former was good bar material; the latter, not so much.

  • C

    “Specialize in sarcasm and snark.” and “vapid”

    Hello, kettle? This is pot, guess what? You’re black.

  • PacRim Jim

    Your 7-step list is a veritable Democrat boot camp.

  • justin case

    gollee gee whiz. ah didn get no high skool diploma an i sure didn get no college. ido know no 1 thang for sure.if newt gingrich is a college perfesser, then the author of this op-ed pierce is a flaming self important [jerk],just like newt. the same can be said for the majority of those commenting.

  • aten

    I knew someone that majored in aerospace engineering that’s struggling to find a job anywhere. No amount of math classes will save you if you don’t have the connections or #5. Fifth far outweighs the fourth, even if you major in math, neuroscience or some other difficult but too specialized field.

  • Philo

    A view from the inside (I’m a humanities professor):

    These kinds of courses are occasionally good; the title is a hook to get students to sign up for some serious things. But mostly they’re a product of the politicization of the humanities. They’re ways of getting students to sign up for Marxist/feminist indoctrination.

    The good news is that, except for distribution requirements, few students would sign up for these courses. The faculty teaching them are always the most vocal for requiring students to take courses in vaguely defined “areas,” accumulate certain “flags,” etc. If students were allowed to choose their courses without having to adhere to regulations, these courses would wither.

  • Maryann Baro

    great observation! I agree wholeheartedly. As parents of a freshman at Bard we’ve been encouraging our daughter to take math and science courses in addition to the lit classes which are her passion. We were saddened to hear that she was not able to get into a math class this semester. Apparently there were only 40 spots available for 80 students. You can’t win for losin’.

  • Xiao-zi


    You said:

    MIT has a number of “labs” like the “Toy Lab.” Perhaps the most well known is the MIT “Media Lab” which is truly an extraordinary place. Anyone who visits the Media Lab will understand instantly why the United States still leads the world in marrying technology to creativity. In fact, mating technology and creativity is an area that no other nation in the world can even come close to competing with our country. The Chinese and Japanese can’t; the Indian’s can’t; the Europeans can’t and the Brazilians and Turks certainly can’t. This is a talent that the United States needs to invest in, not disparage.

    Indeed MIT is a great school but the labs you mention are no more unique than the ability to artfully marry creativity and technology you seem to believe only Americans can master.

  • gshows

    Nice agglomeration of logical fallacies and jumping to conclusions. Way to set up a nice straw man to knock down. Way to use appeal to ridicule and ad hom attacks against the author. You might want to go back to college yourself if this is the best you can do.

  • Cliff

    Civilizations rise and fall. The substance (I use the term loosely) of this article appears to provide some proof of our decline.
    The unprecedented wealth of this nation was the product of adherence to correct and true principles. The further we deviate from them the closer we get to our demise.

  • cb750

    Reminds me of the woman who was belly aching about owing $100k in college loans for her religious studies and women’s studies degrees. Yeah crying a river here.

  • Shinjinarenai

    I came here from because I thought that this would be a list I would get something out of, as a recent graduate. Instead, I was treated to a list of stereotypical college slacking that I and my social group took no part in, which concluded with an insinuation that all unemployed recent graduates are slackers such as these.

    This is absolutely false. Do you not understand that no matter how hard some of us have worked for our degrees, no matter how good our grades or amiable our personalities, that there are factors beyond our control? That there are other factors at work than simple laziness and ignorance?

    I graduated from a state university with a 3.8 GPA, summa cum laude, phi beta kappa, in what is largely considered an ’employable’ major. I am astounded that by the simple fact of unemployment I am to be as reviled as my peers who have goofed off and learned nothing.

    You had an opportunity to write about the real problems with our educational system. Instead, you have lost a potential reader.

  • Patrick

    ” … the vapid thinking and limp prose that Globe editors evidently think belongs in their newspaper … Again, one wonders when the Globe decided that soggy, tasteless mush like this was publishable content. Either the writer or the editor of this piece and quite possibly both clearly spent much too much time in college taking classes like the ones being praised here.”

    I wonder how someone supposedly empowered with what he must consider a real university education missed the article’s clear disclaimer:

    This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.

    The author is solely responsible for the content.

    Not that Walter Russell Mead would actually WANT to get anything resembling a factual statement concerning responsibility for the article.

  • Ian

    It’s tragic that this deception is allowed to ensnare young people. I don’t think they realize what’s expected of them post-college. When I was 18-22 in college and taking these kinds of courses, the reality of what I was going to do for money later didn’t cross my mind too much.

    It’s been a painful learning curve/awakening and now 15 years later I’m about to finish college again with a skill which will allow me to be finally employed. Thanks for calling attention to this academic malpractice/fraud to which too many young people subject themselves.

  • ColeyC

    Hey JL,

    I think the “enlightened” OWS youngsters have this list down cold. Especially number 3. If you have #3 you don’t any of the others.

  • Himee

    In my undergraduate days (I am about to graduate with a Master’s, currently with a 4.0), as a student in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, I was required to take a variety of courses including multiple semesters of a foreign language, two Western Civilization courses, three sciences, etc. Some were specified courses, others were any electives within a certain category. One such elective I chose was entitled “American Popular Culture of the 1960’s.” Some might consider this a “fluff” course (and to a certain extent, it was), but it was also tremendously eye-opening. Yes, we got to watch movies, TV shows, and commercials, and listen to music, but there was also a significant research component to the class as well as a focus not merely on the pop culture icons but on their impact on society at the time and vice versa. We discussed the major political movements, wars, advances in technology, and cultural trends of the time and the pop culture response. It truly helped me to see the effect pop culture has on us and the effect “newsworthy” events and trends have on pop culture. I look at the world around me with a more critical eye, in part because of that class.

    I’m a big believer in “You get out of your education what you put into it.” Now, there are some classes that it would be truly difficult to get anything of value out of them. However, one could take an excellent class, slack off, and not get anything out of it. All this to say that not all “fluff” classes are as “fluffy” as they seem! 🙂

    I do agree with the assessment that many students today don’t want to put in rigorous amounts of effort to achieve and would rather get an “easy A,” but don’t count us all out! Many of us work quite hard in our studies and we will be there to help make the world a better place soon!

    But please don’t take a course on underwater basket weaving! I don’t think that will prove very helpful in your future career! 😉

    As for me, I must return to my cranial nerves, evidence-based sensory motor techniques, and principles of neural plasticity as I study for my dysphagia final! To any other students reading this: happy studying and good luck on finals!

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