Back To School
Published on: September 1, 2011
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  • subrot0

    Another thing that needs to be added: Learn to network early. Your thought on day one should be how can I get a job to pay off this massive debt that I am about to accumulate.

  • teapartydoc

    When people realize that they can home school at the next level just as well as they can at the primary and secondary levels, the university is doomed.

  • Peter

    You brought back memories, Mr. Mead.

    A True Story:

    In the 1980s, I worked for a small upset electronic company (150 or so people). We hired this guy from IBM as Materials Manager (Purchasing, Production Control, Stockroom, Ship/Rec.) and paid him well.

    Trouble surfaced immediately. Whenever the IBMer had to do anything, he immediately looked to delegate it or get someone else to do it for him. When it finally dawned on him that there was nobody to delegate his job to, he looked like a deer in the headlights.

    Needless to say, the guy was totally useless — but boy could he talk, rationalize, stratigize. And did he ever dress the part — jacket, tine, pressed pants.

    He lasted less than 6-months which was too long in my estimation.

  • scientist

    Some good suggestions; but Prof Mead, not knowing much about science himself, shows his own prejudices and his own weaknesses. Why no recommendation to major in Science or Engineering? The modern world is indistinguishable from magic to those without a grounding in Science and Technology. In addition, Science and Engineering departments in American Universities are not affected by Liberal politics or postmodernism; facts are respected and something like a meritocracy still exists. Students from around the world flock to the USA for graduate study in the Sciences, and over 100,000 undergraduates paying full tuition come here from China. Not enough Americans take advantage of these opportunities. By all means get a Liberal education; but major in Biology, Physics, Mathematics, or Computer Science.

  • WigWag

    This is Professor Mead at his best. What a wonderful essay. I’ve emailed it to my nephew who is starting college this week.

    I do have to say though that Professor Mead inadvertently demonstrates whats wrong with higher education in America. He says,

    “I will be teaching full time.”

    Teaching one or two classes a semester which requires three or at most six hours a week standing in front of students imparting knowledge is not a “full time” job, it’s a part time job masquerading as a full time job.

    One of the reasons college is so expensive is that college professors are paid a full time salary for doing part time work.

    That needs to change and whether faculty likes it or not, in time it will.

  • Your advice gets at a fundamental question: Which strategy will be most valuable in the future?

    Will it be a strategy based on a zero sum future, where I can only win what you lose? Or a strategy based on a positive sum future, where everyone playing can win?

    In a university, professors and administrators play a lot of zero sum games. Success is driven by prestige, power, and building the biggest department/bureaucracy. As a result, the people who rise to the top and decide what is taught are (usually) zero sum strategists.

    But in the commercial — real — world, the final game is positive sum. Humility, generosity and individual action lead to success. Successful people are entrepreneurial — they’re positive sum strategists. They want to create as many positive sum games as possible.

    It’s no wonder people in universities are teaching the wrong strategies: what works in their world doesn’t work in the real — commercial — world.

    The idea of different strategies for different types of games goes back to Plato’s Republic, which separated the demiourgoi (producers) from the phulakes (guardians). One group would play positive sum games, the other zero sum games. The problem with universities today is that the system produces zero sum strategists. So of course they’re going to teach zero sum strategies, even though positive sum strategies are the path to success outside the university.

    If you’re interested, there’s a fuller explanation of this distinction at:

    Thanks for your post!

  • I can confirm Walter’s points about a liberal education and learning to write well. Without a background in the traditions behind your own culture, how can you appreciate others? And without the ability to structure your thoughts and make a point economically–which is the backbone of both writing and speaking well–how can you persuade others?

  • Valjean

    Interesting, but you forgot #8: forget all this, get to work at something you love (even if you have to work for free), and start your own business as soon as you can. You’ll be happier, more satisfied and *far* richer.

    You can and should get #5 and #6 — but you don’t need to drop a half-million dollars to get them.

  • Excellent advice; thank you for writing this! My wife and I are home-schooling our four children, and emphasizing history, science, writing and western culture. I believe that home-schooled kids may be ahead of the curve in the future, due to their love of learning and grounding in essential academic basics. My wife teaches the kids Latin, which has already paid off in their language comprehension. Great article, which I’ll link in my blog!

  • dr kill

    The paras concerning university v. the real world cannot be over emphasized. I feel if school contents you, stay there. You will be crushed out here.
    In university every day begins with ‘once upon a time’ and ends with ‘they all lived happily ever after’.
    Only law professors and union officials believe tenure and seniority are equivalent to a marketable skill.
    Like the man said- do or don’t do, there is no try. I see new grads in my field every year. Lately the first two questions are -how much do I make- and – when’s my first day off.
    Current university trends make it easy for an old guy to keep a job.

  • justaguy

    FWIW… IMHO — While picking the right courses is more important than ever, STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) are far more important than in the past. Society is changing and those with a liberal education do not even have the tools to evaluate the change, the stories, or know how to tell reality when politics and power trump reality in the short term. Courses in statistics, computer programming, and a hard science or two (which biology isn’t) will do more to prepare one for a future shock reality than attempting to find any reasonable humanities course left that teaches something other than PC propaganda. Finally, you will need a skill to compete. That skill may become outdated and updating, but something that is valuable to an employer to separate you from those who have the same credential but partied through college.

    From a guy with BS is physics, MA in strategic planning, MS applied physics, credentialed program management and finally a JD — all to keep employed.

  • JKB

    This quote from an article published in 1923 seems to sum up college the best:

    “The idea is, of course, that men are successful because they have gone to college. No idea was ever more absurd. No man is successful because he has managed to pass a certain number of courses and has received a sheepskin which tells the world in Latin, that neither the world nor the graduate can read, that he has successfully completed the work required. If the man is successful, it is because he has the qualities for success in him; the college “education” has merely, speaking in terms’ of horticulture, forced those qualities and given him certain intellectual tools with which to work-tools which he could have got without going to college, but not nearly so quickly. So far as anything practical is concerned, a college is simply an intellectual hothouse. For four years the mind of the undergraduate is put “under glass,” and a very warm and constant sunshine is poured down upon it. The result is, of course, that his mind blooms earlier than it would in the much cooler intellectual atmosphere of the business world.” Marks, Percy, “Under Glass”, Scribner’s Magazine Vol 73, 1923, p 47

    Students should take advantage of the “hot house” to develop a good root system but know that once they transplant into the real world, their ability to adapt and seek out the water and nutrients they’ll need to continue grow will determine their success. As this post encourages, don’t become a hothouse flower can only survive in very controlled environments.

  • dr kill

    My opinion may be considered as anti- kid. It is not. I have four of my own, and I love them, love their friends. But we as a society have let kids in general down. They will get their real education after university.

  • Tom Holsinger

    While I agree with Mr. Mead’s principle that a traditional liberal arts education is optimum absent a need for a specialized degree to qualify for graduate/professional school, he assumes without cause that traditional liberal arts education remain widely available.

    The problem is that academia has largely abandoned what had been known as the liberal arts in favor of undisciplined, unprofessional and politically biased instruction. It is difficult to find colleges where the liberal arts instructional staff retains integrity and skill.

  • Stan Coerr


    Spot-on correct. I love my liberal arts degrees (all three of them) because they taught me not WHAT to think, but HOW to think. The WHAT comes in any field in any number of ways, but the HOW is what you learn as a teenager and young adult. There is no substitute.

    Stan Coerr
    Mclean VA

  • Scott555

    Character counts, that’s for sure, but this generation needs something more than bronze-age folk tales from which to draw guidance. My daughter’s generation have a higher proportion of athiests than any before. The BS filter they’ve had to develop to deal with all the inputs life today throws at them is blocking out most of the value hidden in those myths and traditions, many of which are long overdue for serious re-examination and revision anyway. I don’t have the answer, my daughter and her contemporaries will need to find it.

  • Scientist,

    Why go to school for engineering? I worked my way up the ranks (to aerospace engineer) and got paid for everything I learned (it takes me about two weeks to learn a new sub-discipline).

    School is over rated. My son is going to EE school and getting a good education. I check with him to see what he is learning and find out things I didn’t know. I find that there are very few holes in my knowledge base.

    What advantage does that give me? I think outside the box.

    BTW I have a 40 year start on this new age. How? Contracting. All the rest of the points – discipline, networking, etc. – right on!

  • jkl

    There is a essay by Robert Nosick in Socratic Puzzles making the same point

  • Captain Ned

    I’ll go even further. I’ve got a 13-YO daughter with some level of mechanical/spatial ability. If she ever wanted to run with that and make a career in the skilled trades I wouldn’t bat an eyelash and would support her through her apprenticeship and journeyman phases.

    There should never be a stigma attached to earning a solidly middle-class (upper-middle if you’re a plumber) wage with the skills of your hands and head rather than your skills with words.

    Another approach I would take for the college-bound is to take the first two years at a local community college just to make sure that the student’s temperament is suited for college work. After a successful completion of those two years, transfer into the “real university” of your choice. After all, the BA/BS is still going to have the same name, you spent less, and you hedged the costs of 2 years at a mega-expensive school while ensuring that your child could succeed in a college environment.

  • Richard

    As a recently retired community college instructor, I agree with Tom Holsinger. Ethnic and gender studies were allowed to become credit equivalents for the more standard liberal arts subjects, but the students weren’t stupid. What to do with ethnic and gender instructors? Why, allow them to teach standard liberal arts subjects so those classes become de facto ethnic and gender studies classes. But, I suspect the students are still not stupid and are asking themselves if they want to accumulate $100,000 in debt for classes they don’t want to take.

    I also agree with TeaPartyTyDoc. There are few subjects taught in a four year undergraduate college that can’t be learned on your own. If you don’t have the motivation to learn it on your own, you probably won’t do well in college either.

  • Ofer

    Although sensible in many ways, Prof. Mead is totally of with focus on classical liberal art. “Do you want it with fries?”

    Much better to learn hard sciences – these skills are marketable.

  • willis

    “By all means get a Liberal education; but major in Biology, Physics, Mathematics, or Computer Science.”

    Or for the really ambitious…accounting!

  • willis

    “Much better to learn hard sciences – these skills are marketable.”

    You missed the professor’s point altogether. Hard sciences should be a part of the undergrad’s education, not a substitute for it. A liberal arts education best positions the student for a changing world, not just the one they are graduating into. As a 63 year-old CPA in public practice I have seen this to be true throughout my career. A colleague of mine who majored in history sold his business that only took about 20 years for him to develop for about $20 million. Building a business is not a hard science, not a science of any kind. The closest thing to a major in entrepreneurship is a liberal arts education as described by the good professor.

  • Porkov

    #21 “Much better to learn hard sciences – these skills are marketable.”

    Depends a lot on what you mean by marketable skills. When I learned electronics transistors were just coming into play. A marketable technical skill is a very transient commodity. cf Kurzweil – the pace of technological change is exponential. Good luck keeping up.

  • Jacksonian Libertarian

    So much of education is moving online that the traditional campus with its’ expensive facilities, faculty, and functionaries, is doomed to extinction. In the near future students will be able to take classes from nationally famous professors at a fraction of the cost of the same class at the local University. The famous professors will of course get filthy rich like rock stars (Are you reading this Professor? What if you had 50,000 students instead of 200?). Even the lab work which some classes require will move online with simulated labs, like playing World of Warcraft. In fact the virtual University sounds like an awesome place where everyone in the world could hang out. I look forward to seeing the giant sized Walter Russell Mead Avatar teaching his class in his uniquely designed stadium sized classroom surrounded by 50,000 student groupies. It could happen, it’s even likely.

  • Richard F. Miller

    A heretical question: Why go to college at all? It should be asked by everyone, and some–far more than has been the case over the last several generations–would be wise to answer in the negative.

    Exhibit A: currently in the Midwest, production lines (yes, we still have plenty of them) are screaming for highly skilled machine operators, parts fabricators, and related skills. This, despite unemployment of 9% and underemployment of 16%-18%.

    Those of a certain age might be shocked at learning this. America short of skilled machine operators? Yes. The question is why.

    One answer is that Uncle Sugar and a variety of “teet-masters” (educators, administrators, politicians, bank lending departments, blah, blah, blah) oversold “a college degree” with the same enthusiasm that a different set of usual suspects oversold home ownership.

    After three generations in subsidy city, a college diploma is not only the sine qua non of the American Dream, for many, it doesn’t pay. Better to attend community colleges or vocational schools.

    If this sounds like let them eat cake, consider this: skilled machine tool operators take many years to make and are paid accordingly.

    It may be that in the future Mead describes, the lawyer-consultant-banker class may have lots of highly skilled working people for neighbors.

  • What Tom Holsinger said. If you went to college before the mid-90s, you could still find older professors who could give you a classical education. That classical education is invaluable. I know many scientists and engineers who could have benefited from it.

    But it is not widely available. Worse, what has replaced it is postmodern, Marxist claptrap that is the opposite of education — it makes you more ignorant, not less, and permanently damages your bullshit detector.

    As far as what advice to give students, I have seven nieces and nephews. I told them a few years ago only to go to college if 1) they knew what they wanted to study, and 2) pay their way through, and 3) learn a trade as well. They won’t be able to offshore your plumbing job.

    Next, be wary of easy credit and easy money, both for student loans and for mortgages. Banking can be an honorable profession but some act like drug pushers, and treat those the same way you would treat the corner drug dealer.

    Finally, don’t be afraid to join the military or just work. Show up sober and do the job and within six months you’ll be standing out. One nephew at 18 with nearly 1500 SATs had no idea what to study in college, so he proceeded to walk down to the local grocer — Kroger’s, and started working as a stock boy. (Kroger’s by the way has one of the best stock returns in the past 25 years.) 18 months later, when his colleagues were in their second year of college, he was tapped on the shoulder to go to their management training program.

    That all said, I have no idea what to tell kids now. I have seen engineers and scientists have their jobs offshored and have to reinvent themselves over and over again; my own profession (editing and publishing) has been slaughtered by the Internet. I know a computer networking engineer who worked as a prison guard for three years before getting back into the field. I have an ex-girlfriend who is a PE civil engineering; a great work ethic — she spent four years working in a sporting goods store. Now she’s back in her field.

    The key to the future is going not only be a good offense financially, that is, building a career, but having a good defense, too. Keeping expenses low. Buying things with your money when you have it. Invest carefully in real estate. And as much as possible, remember that you’re not alone — what will get the next generation through is sticking together, helping each other out through the tough times, being ready to adapt.

    Yes, the times are over when you get a teaching job, work 30 years and retire in your early 50s with a cushy teacher’s pension. But you know what? That often hasn’t worked out so great, either — divorce, child support, parents with Alzheimer’s.

    You’ll need to build a community and look out for each other, pool resources, and don’t think you’re all alone.

    I guess that would be my advice, because I agree the rate of change and the pressures from overseas are massive. I can’t see the future at all.

    Oh yes, faith helps.

    Anyway, thanks to everyone who contributed. It has been a fascinating thread.

  • That first point is one of the best arguments I’ve seen for homeschooling outside of the homeschooling world!

    But, I would argue with the idea that government jobs are on the chopping block. Government is one of the few entities hiring–especially federal. Witness the only booming housing market in the country, D.C. So, public school is the best preparation for government work. Another argument for homeschooling!

  • Anthony

    “If you take this advice….you will have the education, the habits and character traits….And…your journey through life will be a rich and rewarding one if you come out of college with a good liberal education and a lifelong love of learning.” WRM, the aforementioned equips students (who are yet so young and must have continued reinforcement) for real world experiences as well as tumult in world of rapid change – Bard students provided roadmap reconciling market dynamics with human dynamics. Good year students!

  • WigWag

    The vision Jacksonian Libertarian outlines in his comment is spot on-brilliant really. Moving in this direction could cut the cost of a college education by fifty percent or more and expose students to the best teachers in the country. These teachers would make a fortune while useless college administrators found their jobs disappearing. No need for the scores of useless academic jobs like “dean for diversity” or “assistant to the associate dean for college life.”

    A typical university undergraduate degree requires 120 credits. Why not allow students to take 60 credits (20 courses) in the online mega university Jacksonian Libertarian describes? At a thousand dollars per course students could pay for half of their college degrees for $20,000 which is a small fraction of what private college students pay now. For the rest of their educations (the second 60 credits or 20 courses) students could attend regular college for what will be all seminar classes (less suitable for online education).

    The higher education lobby can be counted on to do everything it can to fight a system like this. They would be aghast at the prospect of losing all that income. They will probably refuse to accept transfer credits from the online courses. But heres where an enlightened government could play an invaluable role. Government could refuse to provide financial assistance, research grants or student aid to any university which refused to accept transfer credits from the mega online universities that Jacksonian Libertarian is dreaming about.

    The ramifications for college costs could be profound. Cost reductions of 50 percent or more are easy to contemplate.

    Could there be a better gift to struggling middle class families or new graduates facing a terrible job market the dramatically reducing college costs?

    Let’s hope disintermediation comes to higher education sooner rather than latter. I just wish Professor Mead would do something about it rather than just talk about it. After all, Bard and before that, Yale, are part of the problem not the solution.

  • Bart Hall (Kansas, USA)

    My grandfather (1885-1977) told me more than 45 years ago “If you have two trades to earn your living with your hands, and another to earn it with your noodle … you’ll get by just fine.”

    Coming from a man who had supported three children through the last depression on $1,300 per year (about $12K in today’s money — and he was a professor at Yale), I took it seriously.

    Consequently I can still earn my living as a farmer, as a trim carpenter (restoration grade), and as an agronomist or an analytical chemist. If anything, his advice is more valuable today than then.

    Thanks, WRM, for being my grandpa for today’s youth.

  • Elizabeth

    I think it’s interesting how many adults have so many comments on this, and strong opinions they have to share. Ironic, considering point 2, our elders don’t really understand the world we’re going into. I’m not sure to what extent what Mead says is accurate, but I know that the challenges he says my generation is facing are real. It’s scary.
    It’s easy for you all to comment about it when a lot of you have steady jobs and retirement plans, but this is… I don’t know,it’s not something you can tackle all at once with the right idea or opinion.

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