Should you major in the liberal arts?

One day in August of 1986, I sat down before the desk of a Northern Kentucky University (NKU) guidance counselor to discuss my class schedule for the upcoming fall semester. I was an incoming freshman. 

The guidance counselor began by asking me what I intended to major in during my four years at NKU. I told her either history or English literature.

She told me, in so many words, that I was an idiot.

“So what you’re saying,” she said, “is that you want to pay to read books. You can read books on your own time, for free.”

Needless to say, I was taken aback. This was several decades before it became fashionable to refer to callow young adults as “snowflakes”. Nevertheless, I was used to receiving almost unconditional encouragement from the adults in my midst. The ink on my high school diploma was still drying, after all. 

I explained to her that English and history had been my favorite subjects in high school. She told me that that didn’t matter. What mattered was, how was I going to prepare myself to earn a living by reading Shakespeare, and learning about the Treaty of Ghent? 

What are the liberal arts?

I will freely admit that I love the liberal arts. 

What are the liberal arts, exactly? In short, they are subjects of fundamental, as opposed to applied, inquiry. 

Imagine a group of students at one of the great universities of Europe during the Renaissance, say in…the year 1504. How many of them do you think were studying HVAC repair or managerial accounting? No, most of them were studying subjects like philosophy, mathematics, astronomy, and literature. 

The liberal arts, then, don’t necessarily mean subjects for the numerically challenged, like literature and history. The liberal arts actually are divided into four categories: social sciences, natural sciences, mathematics, and humanities. Some of these require a substantial amount of number-crunching. 

The problem with the liberal arts

The problem with the liberal arts, of course, is that it’s hard to make a living as a philosopher or a historian. In most cases, a career in the liberal arts means a career in academia. That can be an okay career, but there are only so many universities and so many open slots. 

And you’ll need an advanced degree. As one of my college biology professors once told my Biology 101 class: “A Bachelor of Science in Biology qualifies you to sell shoes.”

Oh, and that was in 1987, when there were still mall shoe stores to give you a job selling shoes. Today, of course, people buy shoes from Amazon—where they buy seemingly everything else. 

What should you major in, then?

Probably something that you see people doing around you, for actual money: nursing, engineering, accounting, and yes—HVAC repair. (The guy who works on my furnace and air conditioner is typically scheduled four weeks in advance). 

This is a bitter pill to swallow for those of us who love books. It’s not that there aren’t books in the applied fields, but they are different kinds of books, and you’ll require a different kind of curiosity to get enthusiastic about them. 

But trust me—it can be done. I finally ended up majoring in economics—yes, another field in the liberal arts! Later on, though, I took some accounting courses at the graduate level. Accounting can be interesting. Really, it can be.

Why should you be so coldly realistic when choosing a major? The answer is simple: money. With rising tuition costs, a college education is an investment. And every investment requires a plan for ROI (return on investment).

If this doesn’t seem immediately obvious to you (it didn’t seem obvious to me in 1986), don’t be too hard on yourself. Our system of higher education is still stuck in the early twentieth century in many ways. 

Before World War II, a university education was largely seen as a “finishing school” for members of the upper classes. Most of them didn’t have to be too practical. They already had plenty of career options. Many went to work in well-established family businesses. 

In the decades after World War II, the significance and the purpose of the university degree gradually changed. On one hand, by the 1960s, people from the middle and working classes were now attending university. That was a good thing. On the other hand, though, the 4-year university degree lost its scarcity value. And since people in the middle and working classes needed to earn money, they had to be practical when choosing a major.

These changes were already well underway in 1986, when I entered college. But I’m not going to lie to you: When I graduated in 1990, it was still possible to get a corporate, professional job if you had some kind of a 4-year degree—even in history or astronomy. 

Yes, the engineering majors were most in demand, but few English lit graduates truly went without. Somebody would hire you. The only downside was, you wouldn’t be using your major. I graduated with a B.A. in Economics, but no employer ever asked me to draw a supply-and-demand curve, or estimate the marginal utility of some activity. (My first job out of college was a low-level sales job for a machine tool distributor.) 

Nowadays, though, it isn’t uncommon to find twentysomethings with BAs in English working as baristas and waiters. I’m not gloating here, or saying that’s good or fair. I am saying that it’s harder than ever to get a decent-paying job with a liberal arts degree.

What about the liberal arts, then?

Here’s another confession: I still love the liberal arts, and I still think they’re vitally important. 

There are some things that every person should know, and most of these come under the rubric of liberal arts. Every person should know how to set up a basic algebraic equation. Every person should know the differences between capitalism and Marxism. Every person should know the basics of the histories of the major world cultures, and the major world religions. 

Oh, and the Treaty of Ghent: Signed on Christmas Eve, 1814, the Treaty of Ghent ended the War of 1812 between the United States of America and Great Britain. If you’re reading these words in one of those two countries, you should probably know the Treaty of Ghent, too.

To revisit the advice that the NKU guidance counselor gave me over thirty years ago: You can learn about the liberal arts without spending thousands of dollars in university tuition. 

Want to read Shakespeare? His works are in the public domain. If you have an Internet connection, you can read them for free. You don’t have to spend $300 per credit hour to read Shakespeare. 

Likewise, most of the liberal arts have been covered in thousands and thousands of books, written by some very bright people. You can get books for free at your public library. Or you can spend a little money and get them on Amazon. (But you won’t spend even a fraction of what you’d spend to acquire a 4-year degree in one of these subjects.)

The hard truth

I wish the truth were otherwise. I love the idea of study for its own sake. But given the realities of tuition fees and the job market, you probably shouldn’t pay to take college courses in Shakespeare or European history. 

You’d be much better off reading about these subjects on your own time. Go to college for engineering or nursing. 

Or maybe HVAC repair. Remember that HVAC repairman who’s booked four weeks in advance. I doubt that there are many philosophers with four week waiting lists, and not many poets or playwrights, either. 

Technology and the voluntary loss of privacy

This is bigger than Katie Hill…

A certain politician from California has been in the hot seat of late because of embarrassing revelations of a highly personal nature. 

Katie Hill, a freshman representative from California, has recently seen her private life aired on the Internet, from The Daily Mail to Twitter… 

And what a colorful private life it is, apparently. Say what you will about Representative Hill and her politics, but she isn’t boring and she isn’t a prude. 

This naturally raises a lot of questions: Should a politician’s sex life be an issue, so long as they aren’t breaking any laws or violating anyone’s rights? Can a politician who leads an unconventional sex life govern effectively?

Politics tends to attract horndogs of both sexes, irrespective of ideology: Consider the examples of Bill Clinton, JFK, and Donald Trump.

Further back in history, consider Catherine the Great and King David. 

That isn’t the angle I want to consider, though. 

I grew up in the 1980s. Back then, unless you were a famous person, most of what you said and did simply wasn’t documented.

Photographs existed, obviously. But individual photos had to be developed, usually at a Fotomat. And since they also had to be printed out on paper, there was a cost associated with them. 

“Instant cameras”, with self-developing film, enjoyed a period of popularity in the 1970s and 1980s. But the film was expensive, and the photo quality wasn’t very good. 

Because of such negative cost and convenience factors, people tended to take photos only when it was an “event”: a birthday celebration, a school play, a family portrait, etc. I won’t go so far as to say that having your photo taken was a big deal in the 1980s, but yes…it was kind of a big deal. It didn’t happen every day, for the average person. 

As a result, most of what you said and did died in the moment. There wasn’t this minute-by-minute record of your life that we have now. 

Those technologically primitive times had their benefits. Suppose that you said something dumb, or you did something that pushed a few boundaries. Unless it was really over the top, it was quickly forgotten. 

Which is, I would suggest, the way it should be.

Katie Hill certainly didn’t want her private photos published on the Internet. Her reasonable expectations of privacy were violated. Let’s be unequivocal about that. 

But the vast majority of the photos which came to light were clearly posed. This strongly implies that she consented to them being taken. 

This, in itself, represents a major lapse in judgment. Why, pray tell, would anyone consent to a naked photo of oneself, smoking from a bong, with an iron cross tattoo plainly visible near one’s pubic region?

We’ve bought into the notion that every moment of our lives needs to be Instagrammed, Facebooked, and selfied. Perhaps this is mass vanity, or perhaps this has just become a habit. Either way, it’s what we’re all doing. 

And this isn’t just the Millennials and the GenZers. I have friends in their forties and fifties who seemingly can’t go out to dinner without taking a half-dozen photos of themselves and uploading them to Facebook. 

Look at us, and what a happy couple we are, having a fancy meal out on the town!

More of our lives needs to remain private. But our private lives especially need to remain private. 

How do you define “private”? Here’s a rule of thumb: Don’t consent to any photo of yourself that you wouldn’t want posted on the homepage of The Daily Mail. Because as Katie Hill now knows, that may very well happen. 

The Apple Store business model is broken

Here’s what’s wrong…and how Apple can fix it.

This past week I took my 73 year-old father to the Apple Store in the Cincinnati area with the intent of purchasing at least one (and probably two) items. My dad was in the market for a new iPhone and a new laptop. 

We arrived twenty minutes before the store opened. A young Apple Store associate entered our information in a tablet before the store opened. (Like the government in Logan’s Run, Apple Stores seem to eliminate every member of their band over the age of thirty. I have never been waited on there by anyone much beyond that age.) 

Great! I thought. This is going to be fast! Whiz-bang efficiency!

But I was wrong. It wasn’t fast. 

To make a long story short, we spent 90 minutes waiting around the store. We stood. We paced. We looked at the few items that you can view without the help of a sales associate. (And there aren’t many of those.)

And then, finally, we gave up. We left without buying anything. At the time of our departure, we were told that we would be waited on in…about twenty minutes.

That was probably an optimistic assessment. I think it would have been more like an hour: There were around two dozen other customers waiting around for service, just like us. 

I saw several of them walk out in frustration, too.

Apple: great products, sucky retailing

I am a ten-year member of the Cult of Mac. 

I personally haven’t used anything but Apple products since 2010, when a final malware infection of my Dell PC, loaded with Windows XP, convinced me that enough was enough.  

So I bought an iMac. The rest, as they say, is history. Since then, I’ve owned two iMacs, two MacBooks, four iPods, and three iPhones. 

I’ve become an evangelist for Apple products. I’ve converted not only both my parents, but at least two or three of my friends. 

Apple products really are something special. But boy, those Apple Stores sure do suck.

And I’m not the only one who feels this way.

Widespread complaints

A May 2019 article in the LA Times is entitled, “How the Apple Store has fallen from grace”. Focusing on an Apple Store in Columbus, Ohio, the article could have been written about my recent visit to the Apple Store in Cincinnati: 

Web Smith’s recent experience at his local Apple store in the suburbs of Columbus, Ohio, has been an exercise in frustration.

There was the time he visited the Easton Town Center location to buy a laptop for his 11-year-old daughter and spent almost 20 minutes getting an employee to accept his credit card. In January, Smith was buying a monitor and kept asking store workers to check him out, but they couldn’t because they were Apple “Geniuses” handling tech support and not sales.

“It took me forever to get someone to sell me the product,” said Smith, who runs 2PM Inc., an e-commerce research and consulting firm. “It’s become harder to buy something, even when the place isn’t busy. Buying a product there used to be a revered thing. Now you don’t want to bother with the inconvenience.”

There are many similar stories in the media of late, as well as customer complaints on social media. 

Cult of Mac members still largely love their iMacs, MacBooks, iPhones, iPods, and Apple Watches. But they increasingly dread the next trip to the Apple Store.

So what went wrong? And what needs to be done? 

An obsolete concept of the pre-iPhone era

The first Apple Stores debuted in May 2001—going on twenty years ago. Back then, they showcased only the computers, which had a minuscule market share at the time, compared to PCs made by Dell and Gateway. 

iPods were added in October 2001, but these, too, were specialty products when they debuted. For geeks only. 

The real tipping point was the introduction of the iPhone in 2007, and the subsequent ubiquity of smartphones. 

In 2001, a relatively small percentage of the population owned an iMac or a MacBook. In 2019, 40% of us own iPhones. The iPhone is a mass-market product. But it’s still being retailed as if it were a specialty item.

And when you visit an Apple Store in 2019, you’ll find that 70% of the traffic to these upscale boutiques is iPhone-related. Many are there for routine password resets. 

This is traffic that was never imagined or accounted for in 2001, when the Apple Store concept was launched.

Zen over function

Apple Stores don’t look like ordinary electronics retails stores. Steve Jobs was a devotee of eastern Zen practices, and the Apple Store resembles a Japanese bonsai garden. There is an emphasis on minimalism, and lots of blank space. 

The downside of that is that you can’t do much to serve yourself, as you could in a Best Buy or a Walmart. 

You basically walk into the store, and an employee puts you into an electronic queue. Then you wait around. 

But you have a very clean, zen setting in which to wait. 

Uncomfortable stores

Speaking of those long waits….

Apple Stores do look nice. But they are not comfortable places to spend an hour waiting for a salesperson. Which is almost inevitable. 

There are few stools, and it’s clear that the stools were selected for their  sleekness, not their comfort. 

There aren’t any plush bean bags or sofas to sit on. Heavens no! That would detract from the zen.

Inefficient use of staff

Too many Apple Store employees are exclusively dedicated to crowd control—to herding you into virtual line. 

This is because you can’t serve yourself in an Apple Store. Go into a Best Buy, and there are clearly defined areas for looking at computers, at cell phones, at peripherals. There’s a line for service in every Best Buy. A line for returns. 

Normal retail, in other words. 

There are no clearly defined areas within the Apple Store. Customers are all milling about, most of them doing nothing but waiting to be attended on. 

Many of these customers are frustrated and growing impatient. They want to know how much longer they’ll have to wait. This means that at any given moment, at least a quarter of the Apple Store employees you see on the floor are directing this vast cattle drive. 

They aren’t selling any products, they aren’t helping any customers. They’re just managing the virtual line. 

That amounts to a big waste of the Apple Store’s manpower—and of the customers’ time.

Decline of staff quality

Apple stores were once staffed by highly knowledgeable sales personnel. That was in the days when the stores only carried computers, and hiring was very selective.

Those days are gone. Now that it’s all about selling a gazillion iPhones, Apple Store employees are no longer specialists. Despite the pretentious name “Genius Bar”, geniuses are in short supply on the sales floor nowadays. You’re going to be served by run-of-the-mill retail sales staff. And their expertise, helpfulness, and attitudes vary greatly.

Not enough stores

There are about a dozen AT&T stores within a twenty-minute drive of my house in suburban Cincinnati.

Guess how many Apple Store there are…

One. In the Cincinnati area, we are served by a single Apple Store at the Kenwood Towne Centre.

And for those readers in Los Angeles and New York, who maybe think that Cincinnati is a one-horse cow town: There are 2.1 million people in the Greater Cincinnati area. It’s the 29th largest metropolitan area in the United States. 

And we have one Apple Store.

There are only eight Apple Stores in all of Ohio, and a total population of 11 million. That means one Apple Store for every 1,375,000 Ohioans. 

But it could be worse: There are only three Apple Stores in the entire state of Wisconsin. Kentucky has only one Apple Store.

But there are only twenty-two Apple Stores in the entire State of New York. AT&T has more retail locations than that just in Cincinnati. 

No wonder the stores are packed. I made my aforementioned trip to the Kenwood Towne Center Apple Store with my dad on a Friday. Granted, Friday is typically a busier retail day than Tuesday, Wednesday, or Thursday. But this was during the middle of October—not exactly a peak shopping season. The back-to-school rush is already over. The Christmas shopping blitz won’t begin for another six weeks. 

And at 9:40 in the morning—twenty minutes before opening time—there was already a crowd outside the Apple Store.

The Apple Store needs to be refocused on function rather than branding

As an Apple employee quoted by the LA Times notes, Apple Stores are “mostly an exercise in branding and no longer do a good job serving mission shoppers”.

The “mission shopper” is the shopper who goes into the store with a specific purchase in mind (versus someone who is still torn between a Mac and a PC, or an iPhone and an Android). 

These are customers who could largely serve themselves. If only that were possible. But due to the philosophy of the Apple Store, there is minimal “clutter” at these boutique shops. In other words, these are retail shops with minimal merchandise on display. 

Apple Stores need to become more like Best Buys: There should be clearly defined areas for looking at each category of merchandise, and clearly defined areas to wait for technical support. 

As I mentioned above, most of the traffic in the Apple Store seems to involve iPhone support. The iPhone customers definitely need their own area of the store. 

This probably means abandoning the whole boutique concept. At present, Apple Stores are small but mostly empty spaces in high-rent locations. That is, again, all very zen and cool-looking. But it doesn’t happen  to be a great way to purchase a new MacBook, or to get your iPhone unlocked when you’ve forgotten the passcode.

A broken model in terminal need of repair

 The Apple Store might have been a workable retail model in the pre-iPhone era, when Mac devotees really were an exclusive tribe. The Apple geeks of 2001, with their tattoos and soul patches, may have appreciated the gleaming but empty Apple Stores. 

But the Apple customer base has changed and expanded since 2001. When you factor in iPhones, Apple is now a mass-market brand. (And Apple now owns 13% of the home computer market.)

 Having become a mass-market brand, Apple needs to adopt the more efficient practices of a mass-market brand. 

That means dropping the boutique pretentiousness that makes Apple Stores great places to photograph, but horrible places to buy stuff. The hoi polloi of 2019 are not the rarified Apple geeks of 2001. 

We don’t want or need a zen experience. We just want to get quickly in and out of the Apple Store with minimal delays, like we can at every other retail shop.

Ric Ocasek 1944-2019

Ric Ocasek, the lead singer of The Cars, has died. 

Anyone who remembers the early 1980s remembers Ric Ocasek. He was a mainstay on FM radio in those days, the voice behind “Shake it Up” and “Since You’re Gone”. 

When MTV came along in 1982, Ocasek’s visage became well known, too. Those sunglasses.

Ocasek was an unlikely rock star: a too-thin, gawky fellow with a pointy nose and a prominent Adam’s apple. Ocasek was nevertheless a man older than my father, who was married to a supermodel about my age. 

He also proved that you don’t need movie-star good looks to be a successful rock star. The Cars were enormously popular throughout the Reagan decade, with Ric Ocasek as their frontman.

The Cars were never my favorite band. But their music was always there, and it was always pleasant. A feel-good sound from a now vanished, better era.

At the time of this writing, the details of Ocasek’s death are unclear. He was seventy-five years old, and an ex-rock star, so…well, we just don’t know.

Ric Ocasek, 75, R.I.P.