Barone, the Puppeteer and the Credentials FlimFlam

I agree with Michael Barone, in his defense of the “pampered Puppeteer”:

Conservative bloggers and commenters have been making fun of [Joe] Therrien, who quit his job as a drama teacher in New York City public schools to get a Master of Fine Arts in puppetry at the University of Connecticut.

Now he’s saddled with $35,000 in student loans and unable to find a puppetry job. So he’s substitute teaching at half his former pay and is a member of Occupy Wall Street’s Puppetry Guild. […]

What he probably doesn’t realize is that jobs in fields like puppetry aren’t generated by government but are the product of bounteous market capitalism, which enables people to buy luxury goods like puppet show tickets and subsidize puppet theaters through philanthropy.

I agree with everything he says, and I don’t understand why people denigrate anyone for wanting to pursue and master an art; we need art or life becomes bleak, lonely and surprisingly empty.

But what Barone misses is this: Art — with the exception of architecture or any sort of material design which also engages science — should not require a degree before someone is employable. Our nation has become so credential-happy that students have put themselves into terrible debt because they’ve been suckered into thinking they cannot be a real musician, or a real dancer, or a real sculptor or singer, until they have been jury-certified and then degreed. It is frankly driving me nuts that one of my sons, who — having abandoned opera plans to try to make a living as a singer/songwriter — is still in college, wasting money on a degree he no longer wants nor cares about, simply because he’s put so much time and money into the institution that he can’t see not getting a degree out of it. Education itself is always valuable, but the degree is pointless. If he can’t make it as a musician, he’s going to open a club and promote bands; one way or another, he is never going to need his degree.

And he never wanted to go to college. He is in school right now because his father and I bought into the must-have-degree mentality, and he began with a generous enough scholarship to make it worth doing, but if he’d had his druthers, he’d have gotten a job, worked on his music, and rolled the dice.

We should have let him. Instead we fell into the college trap — got starry-eyed over beautiful campuses and prestigious connections he never cared about. When, after two years, he said he wanted to drop out, we held the line: “No-you-must-have-a-degree; the-degree-is-life!”

After the third year, this kid — who has been itchy to “start his own life” since he was six years old — begged again: “get me out of here! This is a waste and I don’t want to do it; a music degree is stupid!”

And we said, “no degree is stupid! Change to liberal arts! It is better than no degree and it will give you a breadth of exposure to topics and ideas! You must have a degree or you will never get a job!”

So, he grudgingly changed to liberal arts, which required more school time.

This September, I told him; “you were right. Forget school; you’re a great musician and you write great stuff. Go for it — forget school and pursue your art, before school sucks the drive out of you. The world doesn’t need another liberal arts degree.”

But by then he had watched his brother get an entry-level job he would never have been considered for without a degree (and it’s a good entry level job, that believe me we’re all grateful for) and the message was received: must have degree; there are no job possibilities without a degree.

“I’ve spent all of this money; I’ve wasted all this time,” my younger son said, “I might as well finish up the degree, even if it never matters.”

I suppose he’s right. But I feel like a sucker, and that we’ve all been suckered. Artists do not need degrees; they need apprenticeships. Writers do not need degrees; they need to learn their craft by writing and reading and thinking and writing some more. Journalists do not need degrees — indeed some of the best of them never had one — they need to learn how to glean information and report it clearly, cleanly and curiously. Musicians and dancers and sports announcers, admen and marketers and computer scientists should not need degrees; their natural abilities, their drive and their demonstrated competency should be enough to legitimize them, without the damned degree, from the damned colleges and the damned meritocracy that demands the validation of over-enrolled colleges often staffed by over-indulged and way-too-comfortable cliques.

Even lawyers, truth be told, should not need degrees, but mentors who will teach them how to think, how to argue, how to study and research and reason — all the things they used to teach in high school before sending a kid out into the world to make his fortune by his wits and his own ambition.

All the things they used to teach us before primary education became about social engineering, with fundamentals bringing up the rear, and the installation of a mindset that says if-you-fail-the-government-will-bail-you-out.

Higher education — continually advancing one’s education — is a wonderful thing. It is a privilege to become educated but if we possess basic skills and our minds are curious, we can educate ourselves to a very great degree. That’s what Winston Churchill did.

I wish my son would pack up, come home, get a job making coffee or sweeping floors or answering phones while he works on his music, and just get going, already.

I want to call him up and say “screw the money, screw the time; it’s all gone. Nothing about tomorrow is certain, so dare to be audacious, and start today, with the rest of your life.”

Conforming and being careful has only tied us into knots. It’s time to break free.

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