The Countryman: Three musketeers, 48 years
High school students are frequently urged by adults, including many who should know better, such as counselors and teachers, to pursue "practical" college majors, such as business or "communications."
Here are three thumbnails of retired folks who did not take that advice. Call them two Jims and a Bob, because those are their names. In May, I visited with the two Jims, buddies from more than 48 years ago.
The two Jims grew up in Kansas City, where Marilyn and I began our married life. We met the Jims at the University of Missouri - Kansas City, where Jim, Jim and Bob earned liberal-arts degrees in political science. We earned advanced degrees, too. All of us were "non-traditional" undergrads who had moved around in the non-academic or "real" world for a while after high school.
Navy Jim had been on sea duty at Guantanamo during the Cuban missile crisis. At UMKC, he and I competed for grades in political science, since we were concentrating on international and comparative politics. I believe he did better in classes outside our major. He, as I, was newly married. Navy Jim was the purpose of my trip to Kansas City last month. He has foregone chemotherapy and radiation for his cancers, so I went to KC knowing it would be my last time to see him.
Marine Jim had come to school after a short term in the corps. He was one of a gang of eight or so who gathered at our apartment almost every week to watch the Smothers Brothers or Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In or to watch the UCLA men's basketball team destroy all comers. We rooted for UCLA's Lucius Allen, who was from the Kansas City in Kansas, which like its state, is named after Kansas City, Missouri.
Today's political science majors probably hear this question even more often than we did: "What on earth can you do with a degree in political science?" Or history, or art, or English, or, you name it, any major in the liberal arts. Here's what two Jims and a Bob did with theirs.
Navy Jim earned a master's degree in government at the Claremont Graduate School in California. He had nearly a second baby by then and needed work, so he hired on as a claims adjuster. He returned to Kansas City and in time became a bond broker after leaving insurance. He worked for local investment banking firms and is at pains to note that while it was his industry that torched the economy in 2007-09, it was not any firm for which he had worked.
He came to love working with municipal bonds, and they apparently came to love him. Navy Jim earned a good living for more than 30 years, and that good living ballooned toward the end of his career, he said.
Navy Jim lost a race for the state house of representatives. He was a Democrat in a Tea Party district south of Kansas City. This year, he was running for the U.S. House of Representatives but withdrew when his prognosis went sour.
Marine Jim took a job right out of UMKC, lobbying for Kroger, among the largest grocery chains in the country. He had married a political-science classmate, and they lived in Cincinnati. In 1972, they sent us a trophy for "Baby of the Year" when our first son was born four years after we had finished our BAs at UMKC. After toiling a while for Kroger, Marine Jim earned a law degree from the Salmon P. Chase College of Law in Cincinnati.
Marine Jim went on to work in politics in Florida for a while and then to work as a lawyer for nascent software companies. In South Carolina, he moved eventually from representative of an insurance company to president of an insurance company. When Wall Street wrecked the economy, he moved to D.C. and became a regulator at the Department of the Treasury, from which he retired in 2014 to move back to Kansas City.
Now Bob. I took an MA at UMKC while Marilyn finished a BA in another practical subject, theater. We went off for more graduate study at Vanderbilt, but after taking all the seminars for a PhD, I returned to my old job as a reporter at the Kansas City Star. Over the next 18 years, I was suburban editor at The Star, women's editor and then deputy editorial-pages editor at the Montreal Gazette, national editor at The Morning Call in Allentown, Pa., and metropolitan editor at The Tribune-Chronicle in Warren, Ohio. Plus stints on the copy desk of the Bangor Daily News and as editorial-page editor of the Waterville Sentinel. Sandwich that around teaching at Miami University (Ohio) and the University of Maine. Toward the end of that skein, I began farming in New Sharon and stayed with it for 35 years, 30 of them growing turkeys.
In vocational terms, what did we do with our liberal-arts degrees? Damned little, directly. But our degrees gave us solid basic educations. It's generally true that liberal-arts programs require a broader general education (western civ, foreign language, intro courses in arts and sciences and social sciences) than do the vocational majors such as business.
When it came time to shift careers -- today's college grads will, on average, change careers at least twice in 48 working years -- each of us was prepared by having a broad education as well as specific skills learned on the job. So, our liberal-arts degrees gave us flexibility.
In our particular cases, political science (how power is acquired and used) applies across virtually all occupations. A degree in, say, accounting might have got any of us higher starting pay. But if we became bored with accounting, our degree would have been little help at getting us into something else.
Navy Jim's degrees meant that when he was interviewed for jobs in insurance and later in investment banking, he could talk about regulation from his knowledge of political science. Marine Jim got a grounding in how law happens that he could use in law school, though he had had no thought of law school when he signed on for political science. Bob used knowledge of politics and government in covering news and in directing others who covered news and when editing copy. In business for himself, his study of administration taught him to expect bureaucrats to serve themselves first, their agency second and the public occasionally.
A liberal-arts major isn't the easy way out. I dreaded Biology 101 and intro to anthropology. But I added hard-won Cs to my GPA from those courses. I looked forward to my history classes, where I did better. (In fact, if I were to do it again, I might major in history, minor in politics.) As a result of these required courses, today I know what the doc means when he says I broke the right ulna. And I know to ask an anthropologist whether she is a physical or a cultural anthropologist. And when a Canadian speaks of the Seven Years War, I know that she is talking about what we call the French and Indian Wars.
Those are admittedly small points, worth little more than cocktail party gambits most of the time. But they indicate a fairly high platform of knowledge on which to base daily life. The doc doesn't need to sigh and bring out a chart to show me the ulna. The cultural anthropologist doesn't have to say for the thousandth time that she doesn't go on archeological digs.
It is not boasting to say that because we took liberal-arts degrees, the two Jims and Bob were truly educated when we finished at the age of 26, 23 and 28, respectively. We were further advantaged by attending a university committed to teaching undergraduates. And because we were well rounded, we had choices as to vocations. Adjuster, salesman, broker, political handler, software lawyer, insurance company president, federal regulator, reporter, editor, teacher, farmer. And so on.
Had any of us taken a vocational major, our backgrounds might have been narrower. We might not have had the history courses, the arts courses, the basic sciences. Certainly we would not have had to meet the language-proficiency required in liberal arts. I chose German, then wound up working in Quebec, where I had to reinvigorate my junior-high-school French so I could speak to folks on the street. Knowing -- more correctly, having known -- two foreign languages never proved a detriment as I moved through careers.
That was all made possible by a liberal-arts education that has served two Jims and a Bob quite well.
Bob Neal is a retired farmer. His political science education may have helped him win three elections to the SAD 9 board of directors and one to the New Sharon select board.