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.

RELATED: The War Against the Young

About Elizabeth Scalia
  • Terrye

    There are a lot of professions that used to be learned through apprenticeship. Even land surveyors did not require a college degree at one time. I had a friend a few years back who had a job working as a advocate for senior citizens. She had done this job very well for some time and then one day, the left her go. They said the rules had changed and from hence forward that position had to be filled by someone with a degree in human services. Never mind the fact that she had excellent evaluations.

    Happens all the time.

  • zmama

    Artists do not need degrees; they need apprenticeships.

    LOVE this. Couldn’t agree more. I spent some time years ago in Germany and learned from a friend who lives there that they still have a system of apprenticeship there for those who choose to enter a trade rather than go to university. She gave the example of someone she knew who apprenticed as a baker. It’s sad we do not honor and respect tradespeople here as much as we should. It is also our great loss.

  • K.L.B.

    You share some interesting points, to be certain. And, I concur with some of what you write. I sense also frustration and angst in your tenor. Like you, I support vocations – a term which, before I became Catholic, meant a skilled trade – a laborer, rather than an ability to cogitate. And yet, how wrong I was! For being a tradesman neither denigrate skilled trades nor meditation, both which are needed in daily life. Critical thinking is important, there is no doubt about that. And yet, while our K-12 schools churn out graduates, we must increasingly ask ourselves if the product we are producing is what we want, or need. There is a transformation afoot, as you obliquely suggest, and it will affect us all, as indeed it should.

    I find myself fortunate indeed to have earned university degrees, and as I approach the midpoint of my life, I too find that I am not immune from growth. While I never denied the need for continuing education, the types of education we all need is less often accessible to those whom most desperately need it.

    Again, you make some excellent points. The quandary is how to correct our present path.

    Any suggestions?

  • Victor

    Anchoress! I think that “IT” all comes down to supply and demand! The jobs are few and the boys at the top made the rules that we need a (deploma) to get the best jobs and what’s wrong with that? :)

    I hear ya! Did you say boys at the top Victor? :(

    Let’s not change subject NOW! :)


  • Richard

    Yes, yes. Puppeteer School? The only reason to get a Masters degree in any subject is to teach in the community colleges. Since Puppetry is not a required course for graduation from a community college, I would not recommend that degree. The most important thing I learned in getting my M.A. back in the 70′s was getting a PhD. was the most self destructive thing you could do to yourself short of suicide. It was like taking a short cut through a cow pasture only to find yourself knee deep and stuck in the muck. I saw what happened to my friends and I bailed.
    When I left school, I felt FREE. I was free to read what I wanted. When I felt I needed to take classes, I took classes for credit/no credit. I took an extension class in screenwriting from one of the writers of Top Gun and another on documentary writing from an L.A. area television news producer. They both told me I had the right stuff. So, while I pursued other jobs including (after a long while) using my M.A. to teach community college, I read and studied and observed on my own what I needed to know to do what I wanted to do.

  • Leslie

    My daughter went straight to Le Cordon Bleu after high school, to get a pastry certificate. 8 months and an externship later she in employed as the head cake decorator at an upscale cupcake shop. It is her dream job. She comes home happy everyday. She is only 19. College is not necessary for the arts.

  • Roger C. M.

    Surprised you didn’t mention someone recently in the news. Guy named Steve Jobs. Didn’t make it thru one year? Johnathan Roebling. Designed the Brooklyn bridge. Never had his P.E. license. Was no such thing back then (thank God). Difference between a qualification and a credential. Tell him to take notice of people like this.

  • Jim Piper

    I echo the rest. Love learning, had no desire for college. Daughter dropped her junior year. Now she is a stay at home mom and wife, because she made right decisions. Neither son wanted college, one is an electrician, the other went into gambling, and does well at it. Not the career I would have chosen for him, but he is happy in his life, so as a parent I am happy for him, and the others.

    One time, went to the Smithsonian Art Museum. joined a tour group, that was discussing a small painting of a bride by Di Vinci. Tour guide explained why it was a masterpiece. Every element in the picture told a story about the bride. Knowing the symbolism, one could almost read a novel in that one small painting. Education made seeing something that looks nice, in a whole new way, with much greater appreciation and enjoyment. I don’t want a credential, I want an education, to understand or wonder at all the awe and glory that surrounds me, to live life at its fullest.

  • Judith L

    You were SO wise, Richard. Getting a Ph.D. is like serving a long sentence. Life is really too short for that.

    My husband supervises master’s theses, and I almost break out in a rash just hearing his end of phone conversations about “feedback” from committee members on what the poor student has to do to get his thesis passed.

    And there is such a glut of Ph. D.’s around here, an M.A. will not guarantee you a Community College job.

  • NBW

    Great post Anchoress! With a child a few years shy of going to college, I’m concerned on so many levels. Colleges are so expensive and what some the “professors” are teaching is certainly not worth what they charge. I am in favor of apprenticeships. I am also angry that many of these kids get degrees in order to get a job and then after the interview they are told they are over-qualified. The govt. hasn’t helped by creating policies such as GATT and NAFTA and the likes to send jobs overseas.

  • Jessica

    You hit close to home on this one. I’m in my third year of earning a PhD in neurobiology, without motivation to work in the sciences thereafter, and I hear the same refrain of “You MUST finish this degree!” The sunk cost of time spent really eats away at you after a while; I understand his persistence to just get the degree. I hope your son gets to use his strengths and gifts well, with or without those pesky letters.

  • Irene Mikol

    Anchoress: On Oct. 20, James Taranto’s “Best of the Web”, “Housing BUbble II” provided an astonishing insight into the role universities play in protecting corporations from civil rights lawsuits. Here’s a link to the article:

    As Mark Steyn says, it’s always about the money.

  • Elaine

    Very very good thoughts on college. I think there is such a wealth of people who can be mentors to young people in the various fields they are interested in without having to get a college degree. Maybe a new way of educating is on the horizon!

  • http://none jca

    First, The Puppeteer made the correct decision in cutting what he perceived to be be his losses by leaving school ( a brave and bold move, kudos to him!). Second, he expects someone else to hire him in a tough market in a limited field. Third, he does not realize it but OPPORTUNITY is staring him in the face and if I met him I would tell him. “Many people feel that the movement lacks a focus and has an inability to articulate their ideas to outsiders. So Puppeteer take OWS’s complaints, theories, and ideas and use your puppetry skills to focus OWS’s ideas, theories and complaints into your own production. Create your own company where you will have the opportunity to potentially generate income, hire people, pay taxes, use your puppetry skills AND projects your ideas of social changes. Now, that would be a brave bold move that you have already shown you are capable of. So, focus your mind, use your time, and get to WORK taking YOUR future into YOUR OWN hands.

  • kevin

    College and graduate school are clearly big business now. Made worse by federal funding and student loans. Tuition far outpaces inflation.

    Sometimes I think the country should hold an education strike and not send young people to college for a year. It would bring the system to its knees.

  • victor

    Something about quitting school three years in towards a four-year degree reminds me of the story about the guy who swam 90% of the way across the English Channel then realized it was too hard, so he turned around and swam back.

    Steve Martin didn’t need a degree in Philosophy to do his two great loves (playing the Banjo and comedy) but I don’t think anyone can say that his comedy (not to mention his playwriting) wasn’t greatly enriched by having majored in Philosophy.

    Never discount the value of a true Liberal Arts education. It’s not about the vocational training, it’s about the formation. Really — on paper, you could learn everything you need to know to be a Catholic priest in a six-month online course, right?

  • friscoeddie

    Take a look at Khan Academy on the web.. An MIT professor has 100s videos mostly on Math, that out do any instructor in any college. Free too, supported by a Bill Gates grant,

  • Jen

    Very interesting post for me, Elizabeth. I’m on the other side of the equation, having never graduated from college. I attended a community college at 18 and took just a few classes and that’s it. I never figured out what to major in, so I gave up. I didn’t have the money to pay for it, so it seemed pointless. And I’ve spent my adult life feeling “less than” those who have a degree. Like I wasted the years I should have spent getting an education, and now I have nothing to show for it. The “college is everything” message is very, very strong, indeed. When nearly everyone around you has a degree, and you don’t, it can really make you feel inadequate by comparison. And it definitely can make it harder to get noticed by professionals.

  • Greta

    The “must have a degree” mentality started with the growth of federal attempts to regulate who was being hired and to determine not opportunity, but end results as measured by stats on various minorities as designated by this same government. Those making these laws and regulations were all supporters of “everyone must have a degree” thinking and of course they are their friends were heavily invested into making those same college’s over into liberal ovens focused on turning out graduates who bought into their concepts.

    Once upon a time, a business hired people based on those who they believed would help them be even more successful. It was up to the candidate to position themselves to meet what the business world wanted. In many professions as well laid out here by the Anchoress, people learned professions in many different ways. There were also a large number of trade schools. However, this according to those who spend their life measuring end results pointed out that some minorities were not ending up with the same results with this method of selection and so began to push discrimination legislation and regulations to try to insure outcome in hiring was equal to all, even if it meant those who had not prepared and who were not qualified had to be hired. The business world reacted by mandating that all candidates had to have college degrees and in doing so, passed off the issue of minorities in many ways to the colleges and this brought in affirmative action programs. Many of the business found that hiring people with college degrees did not solve their problems and so went with proven experience track record as well which also eliminated the hiring problem

    To me it shows how a government “good intent” often goes horribly wrong. After all this mess, we still have minorities not getting jobs in ever larger numbers driving the divide between poverty and rich, but also between minorities and others. The horrible urban school program did nothing to prepare those kids for university and in the process, many jobs driven by trade schools were now disappearing as well as mentor programs. No college degree thinking has been a huge problem for the poor minority kids and will leave this country in severe problems for years. It is what has driven many thinking Americans away from the old liberal thinking that so often produces bad fruit.

  • Doc

    It’s quite simple. Once the Left gained control of the vast majority of our universities and had the ability to indoctrinate as never before, everyone at that point just had to go to college, otherwise what was the point of accumulating all that power?

  • Will

    As mentioned previously, many European countries have two career paths, one to the university and one to a trade school.

    [In Europe, though, it appears that taking up a trade is not looked down upon. Here we seem to believe that learning a trade is "second tier." Which is very silly. One of my son's friends became a car mechanic after high school. He's now making a very nice living in a job that can't be outsourced, fixing the high-end cars of the "first tiers" who -- without mechanics -- would not be able to so much as change their oil. He's quite happy; he doesn't take his work home with him, and he knows he'll always have a job because he studied for a necessary trade, not a trendy degree! -admin]

  • Richard

    Judith, thanks.
    Jessica, if you don’t already have an MS, you can probably negotiate one through an exit strategy or through a hardship deal. There is nothing dishonorable about getting out of dishonorable and dishonest process. This is especially true if you are accumulating debt.
    Victor, your analogy is silly unless you add reality to it: How about trying to swim the English Channel with your committee in the row boat taking turns whacking you over the head with their oars? You don’t swim back to England. You climb in the boat and threaten to throw them overboard! Then you negotiate. Believe me, academia is a refuge for cowards and fools.

  • Todd

    “Artists do not need degrees; they need apprenticeships.”


    Lots of people would be better served by apprenticeships.

    Much hilarity at the comments blaming the Left. It’s pretty much conservatives who have trouble thinking outside the box when it comes to hiring or mentoring someone.

    That said, as long as our corporate masters set the tone, it’s rather tidy to suggest people shouldn’t get college degrees. Bosses feel better paying somebody thousands less. Count me as a skeptic on both the college and not-college front. More than apprenticeships, people need serious discernment to judge the right path in life. Work or college or even both can help a young person make connections that might be even more valuable than a degree earned.

    I love when the Steve Jobs meme surfaces. More pandering to the you-too-can-make-it-big notion all too common in America.

    [I think school/work combo -- even taking some time off from school to figure out what life is about might be a very good thing; we shove them into college at 18, ready-or-not, b/c that's when the scholarships are plentiful and the stars are in the eyes.

    But you know, I'm getting really tired of the fact that no one can discuss anything without having to blame the left or blame the right -- and of course, the people who then come in to laugh at the side they dislike for insisting on dragging ideologies into something that wasn't about ideologies at all, only to themselves jump right into the same pool to splash about and stir the waters some more. I was just thinking I might close comments for the weekend because I'm dealing with an abominable amount of spam and it can't be addressed until Monday, and my schedule won't allow me to stay on top of things as I'd like. But maybe I'll close comments for the weekend because I'm just so sick of how unpleasant these comboxes have become, all the time, on any issue, because people just can't stop sneering at each other from their respective sides. If ever there was a topic that we all should have been able to discuss without bringing "well, it's their fault(s)/no, you're so stupid it's their fault(s)" this should have been it. But no; we can't just toss about an idea, anymore. It all has to be polluted with this sort of thing. Fault, blame, and fingerpointing must always rise followed by the inevitable superiority dance of those who are agnostic on the issue, the better to assume the worst motives -- here, I guess it's "corporate plotting to pay people less" -- I don't know what we all get out of this incessant merry-go-round, but I'm sick of it and increasingly wanting to get off. Yeah. I just decided. Comments will be closed for the weekend. -admin]