Why The Practicality Trolls are Wrong

Posted on May 11, 2013

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I’m going to start by coining a phrase:

Practicality troll. n. One who blames young people for their own economic misfortune, on the grounds that they chose an impractical education or career path.

Practicality trolls are not hard to find. One only needs to find a news article about the economic situation of today’s young people. Whether the article is about unpaid internships, student loan debt, or unemployment, the comments will probably contain practicality trolling. Here’s a common example of the argument that they employ:

“The reason so many young Americans can’t get good jobs is that they went to mediocre colleges and obtained worthless degrees that are essentially useless for the economy.

Most of these people would have been better off if they had gone to trade school rather than university. I bet a 22 year old qualified to be a mechanic can get a job much faster than an English major.”

Practicality trolling can be found in high places. Margaret Wente once attacked the Quebec student protesters by declaring that their degree choices had made them “The Baristas of Tomorrow“. And Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper has made an argument bordering on practicality trolling when he has declared his intentions to “remake the Canadian labour force“. Whether it is espoused by an angry Sun News commenter, or by the Prime Minister of Canada, the argument of the practicality troll is always basically the same: the youth of today have brought their current economic suffering on themselves by choosing worthless university degrees rather than developing marketable skills. And in all cases, the argument is wrong. So wrong, in fact, that a whole series of absurdities would have to be the case in order for it to even be plausible that the practicality trolls might have a point. I’m going to list  those absurdities here.

So without further ado: The unspoken absurdities of the practicality trolls. In order for the practicality trolls to be right, all the following things must be true:

1) The so-called “practical fields” must to actually have higher rates of employment.

This is the core claim of the practicality trolls, and it is rarely challenged. Upon closer inspection, however, it is not immediately obvious that it correct. I know more than one struggling engineer, and most of the most successful people of my age that I know came out of a distinctively impractically titled program called Contemporary Studies. Yes, that’s anecdotal evidence which is skewed by the fact that I went to a liberal arts school, but when you look at the statistics, the support for the practicality trolls’ core claim is patchy at best. This list, for example, does suggest that technical fields have a slight advantage in employment rates, but the advantage is small-most engineering degrees have less than 60% employment after graduation, meaning that many of the unemployed young people being slagged off for having chosen liberal arts degrees are actually engineers. This Globe and Mail article makes a good case that skilled tradespeople only have a slight employment advantage over arts graduates. And according to this list, more than ninety percent of history and philosophy graduates landed jobs after graduation. It’s hard to really pin down reliable statistics on this point, so I’m sure one can dig up studies that support the practicality trolls. But the point here is that this assumption should not be accepted uncritically.

2) These must persist even if there were a surge of people entering those fields.

This is just basic economics. Let’s suppose that all the unemployed humanities graduates listened to the practicality trolls and went off to become welders, carpenters, and mechanical engineers. Ignoring the question of whether this is actually a plausible course of action for them (I’ll tackle that below), what exactly would that do to the job market in the skilled trades and technical professions? Even if there actually is a shortage of skilled labour, a massive surge of newly certified tradespeople looking for work would still almost certainly demean the value of a carpenter’s or electrician’s training. The same goes for practical degrees like engineering. If today’s starting out tradespeople are doing well, it’s mainly because they chose a field which relatively few people were interested in at the time of choosing. This made their skills rare, and therefore valuable. This advantage would disappear pretty quickly if all today’s unemployed philosophy graduates signed up for apprenticeships.

3) The economic advantages of these fields must continue to exist into the foreseeable future.

What will the economy look like in 10 years? What about 25? Or 40? Anybody who claims to have a definitive answer is either an idiot or lying to you. Maybe we’ll recover from the recession and there will be a massive surge in demand for creative workers. Maybe new technologies like 3-D printing and robotics will render most of the skilled trades basically obsolete. Maybe climate change will turn the planet into a post-apocalyptic wasteland. Given this uncertainty, and given that a recent graduate can expect to be in the job market for somewhere around 40 years before retiring, it seems a bit silly to judge their educational choices based solely on the outcome in the economically depressed years immediately following graduation. Especially in the developed countries, where many forms of skilled labour are under constant threat of being outsourced to China or India. This is argument is made well by education guru Sir Ken Robinson, who believes that the ability to think creatively (something that is taught a great deal more in humanities programs than in technical training) is the single most important skill for maintaining employability in the face of the coming curveballs of the twenty-first century.

4) The benefits of a practical education would have had to be visible when today’s graduates were choosing their education.

Okay, so let’s assume for the sake of argument that I’m wrong about everything I’ve said so far. Suppose that technical fields actually do have a greater rate of employment, and that will continue to be the case into the far future, even if all today’s unemployed young people rush in that direction. Even if that were true, could a student finishing high school a decade ago have been expected to predict it? By saying that they “have no sympathy”, and that today’s unemployed youth have brought it on themselves, practicality trolls are making a moral claim as well as a factual one. They believe that today’s unemployed young people are responsible for their fate-that they deserve their current state of desperation.  With that in mind, ask yourself whether anybody predicted the recession of 2008. If any economist in 2005 predicted, then I’ve never heard of them. And if economists couldn’t assess the job market five years in the future, could a 17 year-old high-school student really have been expected to do so? This is further complicated by the fact that many of these high-schoolers were, rightly or wrongly, being pressured into pursuing a university education by the adults in their lives. It’s silly enough to ask a high-schooler to predict something that most economists did not, and it’s even sillier to ask them to act on that prediction against the advice of all the respected authority figures in their lives.

5) A person’s basic competencies have to be translatable from a liberal arts education to a technical education.

Even if I’m incorrect on all the points I’ve made so far, there’s still the matter of basic competency. I studied a humanities degree because that was what I was good at. Reading, writing, and arguing have always been my strengths. I tried to pursue physics for one half of my undergraduate degree and it was a disaster because I simply did not have the mathematical competence to handle differential equations.. I simply did not have the mathematical ability to do high-level physics. My dream of being an electrical engineer ended in late high school for similar reasons And while I’m half-decent at working with my hands, I have neither the stamina nor the fastidiousness necessary for the skilled trades, and would probably wind up hurting myself or somebody else if I tried to work in that field. Practicality trolls appear to take a tabula rasa view of human skills, in which the only thing constraining the skills that can acquired by a person is their educational choices. Experience makes it obvious that this is simply not the case. People are good at different things, and switching to a technical field is simply not an option for many. Presumably, then, at least some of the current unemployed humanities graduates chose their “fluff” major because that’s what they are good at.

I am one of the lucky ones. I managed to turn my history of science and philosophy degree into graduate education in a semi-practical field. I’m not too worried about my employment opportunities once I finish my PhD. But I have friends who are suffering. They are being bounced around between unpaid internships, or desperately sending out resumes, or stuck working in underpaid fast-food jobs when they have master’s degrees. It’s nasty out there, and for baby boomers with secure pensions to shrug their shoulders and say that we should have been more shrewd with our career planning when we were seventeen and there was no recession and everybody was telling us to follow our passions is not just wrong; it’s also insulting. It’s a deliberate attack on unemployed and underemployed young people, aimed at implicating us in our own misfortune and diverting attention away from political choices that are needlessly exacerbating the recession. That this wrong and hurtful narrative has been accepted by the media and political elites is a big, big problem.

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