Campus Scenes

The BS Degree

You can smell one from a mile away.

By 9.24.09

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Every parent knows the fear. Mortgage signed, crucifix pawned, uglier child given up for adoption so precious Heather can pursue out-of-state perfection at a pricey college...all for her to return on Winter break and announce she's majoring in Sociology.

Or Women's Studies. Or Communication. Or any one of what is bluntly known, in disappointed-parent lingo, as a "bulls--t major." Hearing this news, the victim's response recalls a botched amputation. Nothing says "we kept the wrong one" quite like it.

Bulls--t majors were once easy to spot. Their very titles usually gave them away -- whether of the myopic ethnic-gender-cultural studies variety, or obvious repositories for star athletes in the "Leisure and Recreation" vein. Their qualities were also clear. For most people, a BS major meant little work, or little serious knowledge at stake. An easy way out. A waste of time and money. You wouldn't necessarily disown your child for choosing one, but you wouldn't remind relatives of her existence, either. Serious students could easily avoid the shameful trap.

Not anymore. This Fall, more freshmen will enter college than ever before, and their BS opportunities won't be confined to the usual potpourri. They may, in fact, secretly include just about any department in the humanities or social sciences ("north campus," where I'm from), with the sad epiphany coming much later than that first or second Winter break.

The signals for these new BS B.A.'s can be deceptive. Take, for example, tough grading. What seems from afar like an old-fashioned mark of rigor is nowadays more likely a response to suspicious popularity, meant to sift the frivolous from those who are dead serious about their frivolity. GPA requirements for entry to a major are a sure sign to seasoned sniffers that a department has entered the BS zone. Communications and Psychology departments are especially known to employ them.

Other ostensibly legitimate fields are undermined by the doctrinaire political "perspectives" from which they tend to operate. But while Anthropology, Art History, Comparative Literature, Education and others suffer this fate, internal academic corruption alone does not explain the expanding BS phenomenon. Its source runs much deeper. it runs in the very notion, at least 50 years deep, that our nation's survival depends on the largest possible number of its citizens spending four of their most marriageable years in a research university.

A TYPICAL SYMPTOM of the problem rose to the surface at Texas A&M in 2003, when a budget cut prompted scrutiny of its journalism department. Over 1,000 students were enrolled in the booming program. Yet the student newspaper couldn't recruit. No more than a tenth of those students, it turned out, had any interest in journalism. The rest were rejects from business.

"It was perceived as an easy degree," learned Charles Johnson, A&M's dean of Letters and Science. "The students were not too strong."

Whiff thusly caught, Johnson swung for the spray. He closed the department, relocated the faculty, and converted the program to an interdisciplinary minor to go along with study in a prospective beat. Enrollment dropped to 50, all of them committed. The sensible clean-up job ended up dooming Mr. Johnson's candidacy last year for the provost opening at American University, home to a robust journalism program on which its journalism professors pride themselves. They thought it reflected an out-of-touch, fuddy-duddy view of journalism as mere craft -- as opposed to a "way of thinking," defined by "strategic communications" -- and therefore a direct threat to its survival as a specialized academic discipline.

By Duke-rape standards, this episode was a minor behind-the-scenes squabble. But it illustrated a crucial point about higher learning today. Academe has become more and more specialized as its student-body has become less and less special, so that a vast majority of undergraduates are pursuing practical training of some kind in an environment designed for entirely different purposes. Specialization has resulted in a certain sameness. And the "college experience," marketed by universities to gloss over this chasm, hardly disguises it.

To the untenured eye, so many specialized ways of thinking (gender, racial, social, cultural, post-colonial, queer) have of course always seemed like the same way of thinking, a way best described by Big Daddy in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof: "Bull!" But empirically the loss of distinction is evident. Like the late journalism department at A&M, most north campus programs have simply become junior varsities for business and law. ("Basically, I was brought in to make it look like law school," says Nicholas Lemann, dean of Columbia's graduate School of Journalism since 2002.)

It says a lot about the state of academe that journalism, of all fields, is one of the last to lose its bearings in reality. What about something heavier? What about, say, history?

A smart choice if you seek a writing-light path to law school. Less so if you want to learn what happened prior to today. Then there's English. I happened to get an English degree from what I recently heard an actual human being refer to as a "U.S. News Top 25 school." Don't think I'm not proud of it. After all, I never "studied abroad," earned no extra gown-wear, and had a GPA of only 3.2 -- rounding up. I'm modestly proud of all these things. Just not enough to walk an extra hundred meters from the gym to the registrar's office, where my diploma has gathered dust for two years running.

My academic memories involve no enlightening conversations on the subtle similarities between Mark Twain and Samuel Clemens, no midnight musings on whether Shakespeare's plays were really written by the prenatal ghost of Harold Bloom. At least, not with my fellow English majors. Their interests tended to be non-literary at best, Vagina Monologues at worst. Class time was mostly a call-and-response between a droning professor and a chorus of furious notebook scribbles, occasionally interrupted by an eager-beaver who once raised his hand and referred to Heathcliff as "an African-American."

After four years of all-nighters, in-class essays, cramming, caffeine-gorging, speed-skimming, note-scribbling and deciphering, it seemed beyond doubt that most of these people would limp up to the stage on graduation day, read their names in beautiful calligraphy on their diploma, and never read anything again.

And who can blame them? Four years of textual overload and obscure academic jargon -- feminist, anyone? -- is not likely to ignite the moral imagination. A third of my English coeds sought business careers. Another third of us merely desired a major that wouldn't make people think  "Oh, one of those." English seemed harmless enough. Then on April 16, 2007, two months before we donned our gowns, Seung Hi-Cho opened fire on his peers at Virginia Tech University, killing 32 and then himself. One salient detail widely advertised about Hi-Cho's biography was his status as a senior English major.

For months, his kindred spirits across America couldn't avoid the suspicion that our futures contained the slightest possibility of becoming a serial killer and Korean.

"Beware of the scribes," as Jesus said, prophetically.

NOW THAT A BS DEGREE can come from anywhere, traditional notions of it must be revised. No longer should it comprise only the obscure, irrelevant, ludicrous, or piece-of-cake. No longer should it imply a complete absence of learning. "You get out of it what you put in" may defy the spirit of procreation but it applies acutely to college. Ambitious go-getters who aspire to pick up a practical craft will find one whatever they major in.

And that's just the problem. Joseph Epstein, one of the wittiest inside observers of academe, has a phrase for what this craft is most likely to be. He calls it "being good at school." The accuracy of this phrase was confirmed to me when a 25-year-old recent graduate I know boasted of being "good at history." It was something a fourth-grader would say -- one without too many friends.

"Good at school" may sound benign. If so, consider what it entails: that nimble ability to tap-dance to the idiosyncratic tunes of various professors and teaching assistants, pleasing morons and mediocrities and first-raters equally, tapping this way, that way, whichever way the As lay. Translated to the real world, this prepares the gifted for a kind of clairvoyant conformity -- which is to know where everyone's going so you can lead them from behind. The rest learn how to follow the rear.

In his memoir Lost in the Meritocracy, novelist Walter Kirn recounts his own mastery of the dance as an English major at Princeton. "If my schooling had taught me anything," writes Kirn, "it was how to mold myself -- my words, my range of references, my body language -- into whatever shape the day required." Flattering authority without appearing to, slaving to academic fashion, and affecting consensus contrarianism were main principles. Reading was not. Collegiate Kirn didn't so much read as anti-read, somehow interpreting Fitzgerald's This Side of Paradise as a celebration of the college experience. It wasn't until he was safely graduated and properly humbled by pneumonia that he opened a copy of Huckleberry Finn in bed and began his education.

Timely pneumonia can't come to all such students, and may not save them even if it does. (Though Kirn condemns the system that propelled him, critics of his rather wily literary career will note that he learned its lessons well.) What's more, their numbers are rising. Over 60% of high school graduates now go directly to college. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, nearly half of them will major in the humanities or social sciences. President Obama has announced his intention to make enrollment as universal as death.

Some believe the president's plans (with help from the economic crisis) will end up revitalizing craft and training schools, in turn releasing the grip that the "college experience" has held on the public dream for far too long. Yes, we can hope. In the meantime, however, concerned parents will have to do more to ensure seriousness in their children's higher supervising. Merely knowing their major isn't enough.

Test them at home. Monitor their reading lists. Threaten draconian groundings. Force them to choose, if you must, between Howard Zinn and contact with the opposite sex. None of these measures is guaranteed to prevent them from eventually living in Portland or Silverlake, but they're worth a try.

As for me, in the spirit of going five minutes out of my way I think I'll finally pick up that dusty diploma I worked so hard to neglect. The expired Indian casino voucher that hangs on my wall is fading, after all, and it's about time it got replaced.

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