QUALIFICATIONS FOR LIBERAL EDUCATION I: MONEY, GENETICS, AND LUCK

By: Justin Shelby

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My grandparents were born poor, really poor. My grandma once killed my uncle’s pet chicken and fed it to him, that kind of poor. They died literal millionaires. But they didn’t do it by getting “liberal” educations. They did it by becoming electrical engineers, public school teachers, and by investing in land. And my god did they work hard – even into her 60s, my grandmother would tour her various properties, overseeing contractors, painting rooms, placating renters, landscaping yards, etc. They got rich the hard way and uncle Pito still doesn’t eat chicken. I’m not sure where my grandmother graduated from school – most likely a community college. My grandfather apparently got a degree in electrical engineering from Pepperdine, of all places, but I think he went to night school there. He wasn’t exactly a traditional undergraduate. They both worked as teachers in shitty inner city Los Angeles public schools. 

My father was born comfortably middle class. He never had any of his pets fed to him. He did well in high school, but spent the first two years of college at a California community college. He then transferred to the University of Southern California and graduated with a degree in political science. He took the LSATs twice and did well enough the second time to be accepted to Boalt Hall at UC Berkeley, a top 15 school. The only school that rejected him was UChicago – a rejection that I would avenge some 25 years later. My mother studied human biology at Stanford University – her parents, my maternal grandparents, had a similar trajectory to my father’s parents. My maternal grandfather, Gaga, was very entrepreneurial and energetic. I inherited both his entrepreneurialism and his wide shoulders, though, happily, not his short stature. He’s done a dozen different things in his life. The highlights: he served on the USS Missouri during the Korean war – the ship where the Japanese surrendered in World War II. He recalls polishing the commemorative plaque many times. His naval service wasn’t an accident – he figured he’d rather enlist in the navy than risk being drafted into the army. He was a court reporter with (no shit) Harvey Keitel before Keitel was famous. Then he was a criminal defense lawyer. At one point he owned a travel agency, which was apparently financially successful but not satisfying for him. His latest incarnation is as a real-estate agent and costume jewelry salesman. He’s going on 85. He is not a millionaire – but at least two of his children are, and he lives with them, so it’s all good. 

My brother attended Columbia University and I, as I will never tire of telling you, graduated from the University of Chicago. Shane studied archaeology and linguistics and can speak Turkish, Spanish, and English. Sadly, he has yet to find his way, but does seem to be enjoying life in Spain teaching English and doing other sundry tasks for small amounts of “Euro”. 

The family tree gets a bit bushy before my grandparents and I don’t know much about my 8 great-grandparents, though I did personally know one of them when I was very young. 

My point, in all of this, is to demonstrate my position in the succession of generations. John Adams, one of the American founding fathers, has a great quote: 

“I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history, naval architecture, navigation, commerce, and agriculture, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain.”
The details vary a bit – but I sit, roughly, in the third rank. My grandparents labored close to the bone, my father and mother further into the meat, and I aim to break to skin. Soldier – Lawyer – Entrepreneur & Scholar. Ad astra per aspera.

I would never suggest that someone cannot come from humble origins and embrace the goods of liberal education. I’m far too American to believe anything like that. But it’s important to know your own mind and your own place. It is not an accident that we are who we are. For example, while the law is an immensely practical business, but it is also deeply concerned with abstract ideas. Thanks to my dad, I was introduced to the world of abstractions, evidence, logic, rhetoric, etc., from a very young age. I was made to understand the importance of these things, at least in the context of winning a case or convincing a judge. I was surrounded by people who placed a great deal of importance on things like consistency and verbal fluidity. 

It didn’t take long before, I, as a child, would point out my parents inconsistencies, when I thought that they were being unjust or unfair. When my father clung (as he still clings) to inconsistent political positions, I was the first to point them out. For example, for a long time he was against abortion except in cases of rape and/or incest, which is a sentimental and absurd position (since the child is innocent, no matter how the mother impregnated. The consistent positions are, ceteris paribus, to accept abortion in either case, forbid it in either case, or accept that the murder of an innocent is sometimes desirable and acceptable.). Annoying 13 or 14 year old me would point this inconsistency out, every time. To him, the application of logic and principle to life was a job. To me, the application of logic and consistency to life was what the most important man in my life did for a living. Of course, I’m more consistent and concerned with ideas than he is – all of me was formed by enthusiastically mimicking the best and most distinctive parts of him. To their great credit, this behavior was always encouraged or at least tolerated, though I’m sure that it must have been very trying to have such a difficult and argumentative son. One consequence of this is that I find solving intellectual problems very satisfying. That’s an aesthetic predisposition that is partially genetic and partially conditioned by my childhood. You may or may not have that disposition.

It’s not an accident that we are who we are. I was told from a very young age that I would go to the best college I could get into and that my parents would handle the expense, no problem. This promise could be made without my parents exposing themselves to any risk of poverty or financial ruin. And when I told them that I was going to major in classics, they were puzzled, said that I had always been like that, and wished me well. They both trusted my judgment and understood how such a subject could be intellectually compelling, even if it wasn’t for them. 

If your parents respond this way to you when you mention implausible majors and if they can finance an education designed to satisfy your curiosity but that does not give you immediately marketable life skills, then a liberal arts education might be for you. If your parents blink and demand that you study accounting or logistics, and especially if something like accounting sounds like an attractive option to you, there might be more efficient educational options for you than the traditional 4 year B.A. degree, or at least more remunerative ways to spend 100k USD.

Justin Shelby