Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

I’ve long enjoyed reading Camille Paglia, surely one of the most interesting voices in academia, full of piss and vinegar, and capable of original thought. I remember reading her insightful and very funny essay, “The Joy of Presbyterian Sex,” in the 1980s and marking her down as someone to pay attention to.

In the recent Chronicle of Higher Education , Paglia muses about the failings of higher education.

She takes some jabs at the diminishment of humanistic study, caused largely by the brutalities and smug certainties of so-called critical theory. But that’s old news. Paglia’s more interesting point concerns the way in which all our huffing and puffing about the need to compete in a global economy has tended to drive lots of young people into college classrooms who would be happier working with their hands or at a trade or craft.

We need a sweeping revalorization of the trades. The pressuring of middle-class young people into officebound, paper-pushing jobs is cruelly shortsighted. Concrete manual skills, once gained through the master-apprentice alliance in guilds, build a secure identity. Our present educational system defers credentialing and maturity for too long. When middle-class graduates in their mid-20s are just stepping on the bottom rung of the professional career ladder, many of their working-class peers are already self-supporting and married with young children.

There is something right about Paglia’s tirade. Plumbing, electrical trades, construction, welding, small scale manufacturing—these sorts of jobs bring the pride that comes from mastering a practical skill. It’s part of economic life that I discovered working on oil rigs thirty years ago. (I gasp as I could those decades!)

A friend back in Omaha quit his office job a few years ago. He took up home remodeling. Overall, his wages held up pretty well, though he’s now more vulnerable to economic downturns. But overall he’s much happier—doing something well, as he says, rather than just doing something. And, as he put it to me, “I like to control my own destiny.”

I think a liberal arts education is a priceless opportunity for a young person. But I also think Paglia is right. We need to recognize the dignity of work and stop making the four year college degree into the new high school degree—something everyone is expected to complete. At the end of the day, a skill one can take pride in does not depend accumulating credit hours.

Comments are visible to subscribers only. Log in or subscribe to join the conversation.



Filter First Thoughts Posts

Related Articles