Rant: If The Liberal Arts Are To Survive, Then People Can’t Be 6 Figures in Debt For An English Degree

To all budding philanthropists in America:

If you are worried about things like a decline in reading, an inability to express oneself well verbally, a general lack of knowledge about the past or its significance, or the emergence of a thoughtless populist politics, then take note:

You can’t expect people to dedicate themselves fully to being rational if they have to work 2 jobs just to pay tuition and 2 more jobs after school to pay off the debt.

What’s frightening is the cost UD students pay for this sort of education. Yeah, they come out having covered at the least Plato’s Republic and Symposium, Aristotle’s Ethics, the Federalist, Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, Virgil’s Aeneid, Dante’s Divine Comedy, Milton’s Paradise Lost, Shakespeare, the Bible, Augustine’s Confessions, in addition to 2 semesters of American and 2 of World History. By way of comparison with Rutgers, where I went to undergrad: none of the above was required, except an American history requirement, and if any of the above were covered in any way, it was in a matter of days or a week or two (this was the case with the Republic. People here spend most of the semester on it).

But the cost isn’t just the immediate financial cost, which can be 6 figures over 4 years if no aid from the school is forthcoming (meeting someone in this situation yesterday pushed me to write this post). The cost is also that to study so intensely, one’s energies can’t really be devoted to anything else.

We have this ridiculous idea that if something is really worth a lot, we have to work independent of that thing for it. For example: if we really want to study Latin, what we have to do is work every other single job for years until we have a ton of cash, or take out massive loans which will require us to work the next 20 years of our lives to pay off, and then go study.

I can safely tell you that if you want to complain about why it looks like the world is getting dumber as we get more and more technology, look no further than the enormous incentives we place on practical learning. Mass media is a form of practical learning: as much as I love reading the paper and keeping up with the news, the idea that I can be an expert on a topic by keeping up with a news flow on it is pretty preposterous. Principles, methods of analysis and the ability to work with arguments need to be formed and experienced at a far deeper level: the news is only good if people know how to be informed.

What’s remarkable, of course, is that plenty of people do go to school, do take on these burdens, and do come out knowing more while having tons of debt. For all the complaining about how English majors know nothing or how philosophy is useless, there are plenty of people in schools all over the US who try, despite how problematic everything is. Some of those people, of course, are being forced to get a degree. They’re being told a degree of any sort is good by people that could probably use a formal education themselves.

Our modes of learning are utter chaos right now: we’re imposing on intellectual virtues what is left of the moral virtues (hard work and frugality aren’t strictly speaking virtues. Criminals can have both). Until this changes, we will continue to do a massive injustice to the life of the mind, our own heritage, and our future.


  1. We are mortgaging our futures for a piece of paper! I did it, or am still doing it. To think I pay my college loan payment, mortgage payment, to have the job that I have today. Will I ultimately get a better position and career, but I am putting so much out for a shitty degree, and I’m better off than so many others!

  2. No relevance to yr post. Just a note – I sent you an email via hotmail. It’s abt something that bugs me. Let me know yr thoughts, esp. the who and why.

  3. About me:

    Number of university degrees completed: 2
    Number of university degrees yet to complete: 1
    Debt upon reception of a $120,000 liberal arts degree: $15,000
    Debt upon reception of an M.A. in History: $62,000
    Debt upon reception of Ph.D. in History: Pending a miracle, I expect somewhere around $100,000
    Year in which I expect to be out of debt: 2112 at which point I’ll be 132 years of age.

    For this hassle, I will eventually be qualified to teach future slaves to student loan debt.

  4. Student loans have become a
    very rich source of profiteering
    in the past 6-8 years.
    I won’t state the obvious
    connections further that that.
    It’s sick to allow those rates
    and terms, and not necessary.

  5. Here’s the story of incredibly stupid me:
    Debt from Undergrad: $0 (all scholarship)
    Debt from 2 yrs Graduate Program: $0 (all paid out of pocket, but incomplete)
    Debt from 1 completed and 1 incomplete semester Law School that I will now never finish: $50,000

    My undergrad degree is completely useless without the professional school follow-through (and no, Ashok- and any other political scientists out there, that’s no judgment on yours… just mine :P).

    Intention was to finish the grad classes alongside JD classes…

    Somebody please shoot me. I was doing soooo well… didn’t owe a penny to anybody.

    And what did I expect anyway? How exactly did I expect to pay off that $150,000+ debt at some, umm, inspired interest rates.

    How did my creditors expect me to pay it off for that matter?

    I’ve seen borrowing toward better employ-ability work well, but most of the time it just doesn’t seem wise.

    Man, I ramble on about myself waaaayy too much.

  6. OR you can go and do what I did. Get a ‘profession’, work hard, and go back to school in your 50’s for your advanced degree. (With modern medicine, I am still in the first half of my life. )

    But really, I do feel for the student burdened by the cost-no-object attitudes of the universities. However, we must remember that we HAD a low cost high quality higher education system. (At least in California) The university and the state combined to destroy it, one by padding the payroll with non-instructors and political hacks, and the other by making such slush-fundery profitable. Add faux-students to faux-teachers and you end up with faux-programs (almost ANYTHING that ends in ‘studies’) granting faux degrees.

    ‘Free’ government money and ‘no-pay-back’ ( they thought!) student loans were the drug that made this sweet for the students to swallow. No-load classes taught by a stream of grad students undercut any work ethic the teachers might have had. Grade inflation made the whole thing look good on paper.

    To bad a worthless degree is just that.

    Now we are out of money and the illusion is fading as fast as the patience of the public.

Leave a Reply to Annie B Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.