Is it “brilliant” to accumulate $185,000 of debt studying the humanities?

From the Des Moines Register, an article by Ms. Rehha Basu.


Sixteen years ago, Patricia (P.J.) Johnston of Des Moines made the front page of this paper for collecting her diploma from Drake University at just 19. “Johnston was reading books on French existentialism while others her age were still buying comic books,” wrote reporter Tom Alex of the young woman who majored in religion and philosophy, dabbled in music and astronomy and found time to take part in online discussions on the Bible.

“I think I’m probably meant to be an academic,” Johnston was quoted as saying. And she has been, getting a master’s in one institution, going to seminary at another, doing field research in India in her area of interest — Indian Catholicism — and currently working toward a Ph.D in religious studies at the University of Iowa.

President Barack Obama came through Johnston’s university on Wednesday, where he said there is no greater predictor of success than a good education. “This country has always made a commitment to put a good education within the reach of everybody who’s willing to work for it,” Obama said. “That’s part of what made us special. … That’s a commitment that we need to reaffirm today.”

He talked about the untenable debt that’s limiting options for today’s college-goers — $25,000 on average — because tuition and fees have more than doubled since they were born.

Johnston didn’t get to hear him since she was teaching a class on Buddhism. But she knows a lot about educational debt. She has $185,000 in student loans to repay.

As it is, she sleeps on her office floor on the days she has to be in Iowa City, riding the Greyhound bus in from Des Moines. She helps support her mother with the approximately $16,000 she earns as a teaching assistant. But she is in danger of dropping out before getting her doctorate because she has hit her limit on loans, and most likely won’t be able to get a teaching assistant position next year because of cuts in undergraduate programs.

If that happens, she wrote me, she would be this far along, “facing the job market in my mid-30s with no marketable job skills of any kind.”

Johnston grew up on welfare and other forms of public assistance. Her divorced mother was unable to hold down a job for reasons that were never diagnosed. Johnston got through college with scholarships, grants, some help from her late grandmother, and only $18,000 in debt.

Student loans should not be connected to the government as they are now – they should be privatized. That way, taxpayers are not stuck with the bill if the person cannot make a career out of what they are studing. What is this person doing going abroad in India? What is she doing riding on Grayhounds? It makes no sense. If she had to go to a for-profit bank, then she would never get a student loan, because they know they would never get the money back. We have to have a system where people pay their own way, so that they can’t take risks with anyone else’s money but their own (or their loan guarantor’s). No taxpayer money should be available to them, and no taxpayer money should be given to subsidize universities, either – it just raises the cost of tuition. Once the number of students applying to the humanities is reduced because no loans are available, then tuition will come down for those who really intend to make a go of it.

I think a lot of the problem here comes from growing up without a father. Fathers teach their children to be practical because they worry more than mothers about the children not being able to be independent and fend for themselves.

UPDATE: The Captain comments on this story here.

UPDATE: This is from the woman’s Facebook page:

I have never asked anybody to pay my student loan debt for me, and I will pay it down someday, even if I have to eat ramen noodles for the rest of my life. I was willing to undertake my studies at any cost and at any degree of personal risk because I believe in God and I am convinced that I am doing what God is calling me to do. If you read the New Testament, you will find a great deal about how people are called to give up everything they own – houses and wealth and family and respectibility and everything else – to do whatever it is that God calls them to do. I am not brave and no longer optimistic, but I have tried to take God at his word.

I am not financing education entirely through student loan debt. I held work study jobs as an undergraduate, and have usually held some kind of on-campus employment. I have been a TA for the university for the last seven years. The fact is, government support of higher education is down and the cost of tuition has outpaced salaries to such a great degree in this country that virtually nobody is able to afford an education on their own wages without taking on a substantial burden of student loan debt. The vast majority of the anecdotes to the contrary concern degrees earned twenty or thirty years ago, before major structural changes in the financing of higher education – in the post-war years, government funding allowed the vast majority of expense for education to be met through Pell grants and scholarships, making it possible for many people to work themselves through school. That hasn’t been possible for most people in most degree programs for at least thirty years, and these nostalgic memories of an entirely different time and set of circumstances are not doing the debate on higher education financing in this country any good at all.

I am not a “professional student” nor am I taking an especially long time to pursue my degree – this is simply how long humanities education takes.

If you only see value in STEM disciplines, I probably will not convince you that humanities education is valuable. There used to be a sense in this country that certain things had value and meaning in their own right, not simply because they produced nice technological gadgets or made bundles of money for businesses. Even conservatives such as Allan Bloom used to realize that it impoverishes us spiritually when we turn away from the humanities, the cultural legacy of Western society. Would that their political descendants had as much grace or wisdom.

She’s not being forced into this course of action. She’s choosing it deliberately, and she wants other people to pay to make her impractical flight from reality financially sound.

8 thoughts on “Is it “brilliant” to accumulate $185,000 of debt studying the humanities?”

  1. ‘I am not a “professional student” nor am I taking an especially long time to pursue my degree – this is simply how long humanities education takes.’ So, humanities education takes 10 years, but learning how to design “gadgets,” bridges, cars, planes, and spacecraft can be accomplished in 4 years? That humanities stuff must be REALLY hard! :-)

    I’m all in favor of humanities, BTW. I love to read my French Bible, study the great philosophers of the past and present, explore history, sample a little Greek and Hebrew in some solid commentaries, etc.

    But, there was once a time when the basic stuff that Ph.D’s in humanities now study was all taken care of in the first 15 years of life: “The course of study… in 1874 included the usual R’s, along with Mental Arithmetic, Physiology, Botany, Philology, Rhetoric, French, German, Mental and Moral Philosophy, and Evidences of Christianity.” – from “Gone and Forgotten,” Anthony Esolen, Touchstone, May/June 2014. This is concerning a co-ed boarding school for ages 5-15 run by a woman, no less!

    This curriculum included Philology, for goodness sake! (I had to look that one up – notice the second, common, definition concerning the linguistic study of ancient texts.) How about “Evidences of Christianity?” Sound familiar? (This might very well have been a testament to Paley’s classic: Mental and Moral Philosophy? Wow!

    If we taught this nowadays, would even 10% of the Western churches, with all the false gospels present, survive? Would an atheist-agnostic (OK, anti-Christian) even be able to show his (or rarely, her) face in public without being mocked as blatantly intellectually inferior? Is it any wonder how incredibly far we have fallen when 15 year olds used to know what government worshippers could never, in a million years of concentrated effort, intellectually aspire to?


  2. This is the reason I’m not a college graduate. I would rather live paycheck to paycheck with a limited or non-existent amount of debt hanging over my head than to go to college, come out with a ton of debt, and be one of the 50% of college grads to not be able to find a job in their field and having to work a paycheck to paycheck type of job in the end anyway, but with debt they are unable to pay.

    If I were a man with career goals that required a degree, then I would think it more of a risk worth taking. But as it is, I’m not motivated to be a career woman, so it wouldn’t be worth it to me. As long as I can keep my basic bills paid and food on my table then I’m fine. Though I have been thinking of taking a few business classes (not a whole degree, just a few specific classes) to equip me to do some sort of homebased business that I could help bring in some money without abandoning my hopefully future children at daycare to work fulltime outside the home, if I manage to get married (I hope).


    1. I want to encourage you, Feminine, to consider starting a business, without necessarily taking business classes. Most of the successful business owners that I know took an area that they liked and studied up on it outside of academia. Many of these business owners are in very “mundane” (in other words, really important) fields: janitorial services, junkyards, auto mechanics, plumbing, housekeeping businesses, childcare, sewing, etc. They looked for people who were successful in those fields, and asked them for advice. They searched the net, trade magazines, and bookstores, but most importantly for people, mentors – much as we do in the apologetics field.
      One other analogy I might employ: most, if not all, of the best homeschooling moms I have met never had a college degree, much less a course in education. Yet, their success is proven in the character of their children – overwhelmingly. If you want to know how an academic might do it – someone who never has to put their own financial security on the line – then fine. But, in the vast majority of cases, it’s not real. You CAN do this without their advice, just as you have succeeded in life without a college degree. There is a certain degree of truth to the statement: “those who can’t, teach.” (Here come the teacher replies, so let me just say that this rule has many fine exceptions.)
      Do it the old-fashioned way – the way it was done in family businesses for centuries: bootstrap and play good defense (keep costs low to increase profits and improve your survivability timeline). If a potential mentor tells you that the first thing you need to do to start a business is to lay out thousands of dollars on office space, furniture, marketing, etc, please fire him or her immediately. They are probably in debt up to their eyeballs (like the woman in this story), and are likely slaves to their business, versus the other way around.
      [Disclaimer: I have 4 technical degrees, but never had a business course in my life, outside of undergrad economics. Still, I took what I knew and ran a successful business for 13 years before retiring at a very early age. My business success was only dependent on my technical degrees to the extent that such was the source of the information in my field, not because there was any preparation (in those degrees) for running a business.]


  3. Ya know, WK, this is one time I cannot agree with you. I really think you come down on non-STEM degrees too harshly. God calls people into all walks of life. Yes, we do need Christians going into STEM fields. But we also need Christians in other fields as well. In fact, Christians need to be all over the place! Hollywood is a great example of a non-STEM area where we desperately need Christians to infiltrate and reclaim one our most popular forms of entertainment. Who are we to judge this woman IF God did indeed call her to this. Will He not make a way for her? The important thing is to follow Christ. For some it may mean being a scientist. For someone else, it might mean going into the humanities. Heck, for some it could even be being the best darned janitor they could be…as long as it’s all for the glory of Christ.

    Now, having said all that, this woman isn’t off the hook. While we don’t know for sure, I’m inclined to think that there could have been a way to get through her schooling with less debt. Also, it doesn’t appear that she had any sort of backup plan if her degree didn’t pan out; which would have been a more responsible thing to do. And then there’s her degree itself. I would think that there could have been a less specialized degree which would have let her follow her calling, although once again, we don’t know for sure.

    In the end, this woman is a sister in Christ. It seems to me that she is trying to follow God, even if not in the best way. And let’s not forget that she at the very least claims that she is willing to pay the price for her actions. Is this not something we should laud, instead of condemn? Even if she was completely wrong, should we not point out her mistake with gentleness?

    Just some food for thought.


    1. I could be wrong, but I don’t think he meant that humanities are always bad (though a lot of colleges do a poor job teaching them). What is bad is going into crippling debt for the education which will never in a million years pay for itself.
      If someone can drop $100,000 on a well-taught Theology or Philosophy degree program, more power to them. But taking out that much money in loans for that type of degree is just foolish. Just as we wouldn’t advocate a Christian go out and max twenty credit cards to buy Theology books, we shouldn’t advocate Christians go out and borrow just as much money for the people who wrote the books to describe them.
      Christians do need to retake the humanities and the entertainment industry but they can’t do it with the weight of debt they can never pay around their neck.


  4. 1) It is quite possible to get a college education without incurring debt. I did it. And I graduated in 2009, not 30 years ago.
    2) While I wouldn’t say that the humanities are all completely worthless, studying them is a luxury because they generally don’t offer training for a good-paying job. If someone has the money to study them and doesn’t need that time and money to prepare for a job that will allow them to support themselves, then they are free to go for it. But for those who don’t have that kind of cash on hand or can’t turn it into a career, it’s a bad choice. And that’s especially true if they are getting tons of student aid and government loans to do it.


  5. she has clearly acquired too much debt, but if she pays it back (as she says she will) then it’s her problem and solution. The fact that the gov’t oversees and guarantees these bank loans is just the way the game is played now. Students who need to borrow don’t really have a choice.
    but she should be a good object lesson to others: “eat ramen for the rest of my life”, just to pay off school debt. That’s not how most people define the good life, and I doubt it’s truly God’s will for her.


    1. Your last sentence says it all, CARealist. Maybe this is what she WISHES God willed for her. More importantly, consider her statement: “I have never asked anybody to pay my student loan debt for me, and I will pay it down someday…” Wow! “Pay it down someday?!?” Whatever happened to “pay it off completely on time?” Notice the two major differences in these two phrases. This is pure entitlement mentality. Hey, WK, you rich apologist: give me a $100K loan, and I will pay it down (to $50K maybe, maybe not) someday!

      Also, consider this statement: “I was willing to undertake my studies at any cost and at any degree of personal risk…” Well, yes, indeed, “at any cost” to the taxpayer! You are most welcome, BTW, since you forgot to thank me and (the ever diminishing) everyone else who pays taxes. “Personal risk?” Uh, no. You are risking OUR money, not yours. Get it?

      Finally, consider this: “you will find a great deal about how people are called to give up everything they own – houses and wealth and family and respectability and everything else – to do whatever it is that God calls them to do.” For your information, you do NOT own OUR taxpayer money – you just think you do. Also, how have you given up your family? You might have given up having a family until later, but that is not even close to what proper Biblical hermeneutics is referring to here. You have not given up anything you already own – you have merely given up owning things in the future. Big deal. We all do that – including atheists, Hindus, Buddhists, and Muslims. Get over yourself – please.

      WK, you were way too gentle with this lady. This is precisely how the community dis-organizer got elected two terms.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s