Robert Price

Saturday, Jun 15 2013 11:00 PM

ROBERT PRICE: Survival of the poet in the age of Zuckerberg

By Robert Price

For a couple of years now, I have been anguishing over two diverging developments.

On one hand, expertise in the digital arts is becoming more important by the day. By some estimations, our collective level of knowledge doubles every two years. Or is it two months? We shed old technologies like gopher snakes shed their skin. As a consequence, new college graduates preparing to enter the workforce need be not only technologically competent but also emotionally resilient. Change will forever be their cubicle-mate.

At the same time, I've been watching my daughter negotiate college life. Jill has the social thing down pretty well, it would seem, and her grades are good. But -- and this has to rank right up there on the hierarchy of fathers' fears -- she's practically unemployable. She is (shudder) an English major. Her understanding of "Canterbury Tales" is impressive; her grasp of source code not so much.

This parental anguish got a little worse Friday as I watched the graduates of CSU Bakersfield's School of Arts and Humanities fidget in their plastic folding chairs. Commencement speaker Rick Wartzman, the journalist and author of "Obscene in the Extreme: The Burning and Banning of John Steinbeck's 'The Grapes of Wrath,'" didn't help matters.

None of the smart, successful guys in America today graduated from college, and they don't think you should have bothered with it either, Wartzman said, or words to that effect.

"I hate to be the one to break it to you," he said, "but someone has to: There are folks out there who think you're a bunch of suckers."

Yes, I'd been reading some of the same, depressing stuff: If zillionaire entrepreneurs like Mark Zuckerberg can drop out and still manage to become famous, maybe a college degree is just an unnecessary loan payment.

Then, just as the grads who were actually paying attention started looking around for a steep cliff, Wartzman reeled them back in.

"I'm here to tell you that the UnCollege crowd has got it all wrong," he said. "Anyone who is really urging young people to forgo a formal education -- and please allow me to quote Dr. (Merle) Haggard here -- well, he or she 'ain't nothing but a fool.' You and your families -- who in many cases sacrificed so much to get you to college and to get you through -- are the ones who've gotten it completely right."

And he rattled off encouraging numbers about employability and projected income.

All well and good, but what about the kids who went to college to refine their skills composing free verse or arranging four-part harmonies? What about their employability and projected income?

"To hear some tell it," Wartzman said, "not only were you a sucker to go to college, but you were a real sucker to major in something that is so impractical."

Which is what I'd been trying to tell Jill all along, without seeming to be a callous dream-crusher who long ago forgot what it was like to be young and in love with possibility.

(Aside: If English majors are real suckers, what would that make the parents of said suckers? The ones who wrote all of those account-draining checks?)

In any case, is there hope in this increasingly sophisticated world for these newly minted practitioners of the soft sciences?

Well, there's happiness and fulfillment, Wartzman said, at which point I broke into tears.

"Meantime, here's another secret: You may at some point decide to pursue a career in business -- and you could be exactly what the corporate recruiter is looking for. More and more, the smartest companies are coming to value those who hold humanities degrees."

Wait -- what?

"Philosophers can help you with ethics," Wartzman said. "Historians can help you understand the past while giving you a picture of the future."

And poets can help with -- well, something, I'm hoping.

I already grasped this on some level, of course. I was an English major myself before I got smart and switched to -- journalism? Wartzman was a journalism major, too, and now he gives commencement speeches -- speeches so powerful he can whip debt-ridden parents from the precipice of unredeemable despair to the soothing hearth of hopefulness, and back again. And back again.

Anybody out there hiring second sopranos this summer? I may know of one.

Email Editorial Page Editor Robert Price at rprice@bakersfield.com.

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