My Lousy Education

Doc's note: Today, I'm sharing an essay from famed political satirist P.J. O'Rourke. In a recent issue of his online magazine, American Consequences, P.J. explains why the world needs "B.S." degrees.

American Consequences is edited by P.J. and written by some of the smartest contrarian market analysts in the world. The best part is... it's 100% free. There's no subscription fee or "paywall" or anything like that. Sign up to start receiving issues right here.


The dictionary definition of education is "The process of training and developing the knowledge, mind, character, etc., especially by formal schooling." In which case, I (P.J.) am unprocessed.

I can't exactly say I'm not educated... I have a college degree. But it's in Liberal Arts. What knowledge I possess is not trained and developed. Neither is my mind, my character, and – as best I can tell – my etc...

In other words, I don't know how to do anything. I can't build a building. I can't design a rocket. I can't do math. Really, I can't do arithmetic beyond the first page of the multiplication tables. I don't know how much a whole mess of nines is. I can't cure your ills or drill your teeth or represent you in a court of law when you sue me for medical malpractice. I can't invest or speculate. (That is, I can't successfully.) I can't turn $1 into $1.01 even with the one-year Treasury rate at 2.25%. I can't fix a flat on your car.

(Wait, I can fix it, if you'll let me roll your car forward a foot or two. Your tire is only flat on one side. I learned that when I took "Physics for Poets.")

I never studied a subject that has been applicable in my adult life except Abnormal Psychology, and let's not go into details about that.

I was an English major... because I was paging through the course catalogue and I saw "English" and I thought, "Hey, I speak that!"

I chose my courses in college according to what time of day the class met, adhering to the rule, "You can't drink in learning before you drink lunch."

And I graduated cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa.

I'm ignorant – but I'm good at it.

And that's the enormous advantage of a Liberal Arts education. You can't spend four (or five or six) years of college picking only courses that you can bluff your way through without learning the art of bamboozling...

It may say "B.A." on my diploma, but what I've got a degree in is "B.S."

I can talk the shingles off a barn roof. Or, as the case actually was, I can talk them back on.

Yes, I'd be smarter if I had a "STEM" (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education. If I'd studied trigonometry, I would have realized that cutting down a 50-foot pine tree that was 20 feet from my barn might result in certain sine, cosine, tangent, and crushed barn roof problems. And no, I don't know a hypotenuse from a possum belly.

But... you should have heard me with the insurance adjuster. Euclid, Archimedes, and Pythagoras put together weren't a patch on me. (Even less so since they'd be talking to the insurance adjuster in ancient Greek.) By the time I got done, the insurance company had not only paid for a new barn roof, it had paid for a new barn to go under it and a new chainsaw and a new pine tree and three cows to replace the cows that would have been killed when the barn roof collapsed if I'd had any cows.

I'm ignorant – but I'm good at it.

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And the world should be thankful for all the Liberal Arts graduates who are just as good as I am at B.S.

Think of all the things that we owe to B.S... Think of all the things that would be impossible without B.S...

  • Art
  • Literature
  • Rap Music
  • Dating
  • Marriage
  • Having a Talk With Your Son About the Birds and Bees
  • Advertising
  • Marketing
  • Sales
  • Tech Company IPOs

And don't try adding to this list because it expands faster than Star Trek's USS Enterprise at warp 9, which is 729 times the speed of light, which is B.S. I pulled off a website on the Internet, which wouldn't have any websites if it weren't for B.S.

Let us examine just two examples. First, politics...

I'll draw a box:

Look into the box. That's politics without B.S.

How would we be governed? Who could be elected? Imagine a candidate giving a B.S.-free stump speech: "No, I can't fix public education. The problem isn't funding or teachers' unions or vouchers or lack of computer equipment in the classroom. The problem is your damn kids."

Our executive, legislative, and judicial branches would cease to function. Our political institutions would be "Bare ruin'd choirs, where late the sweet birds (full of B.S.) sang."

The America that the world knows would disappear. ISIS would hold sway from Baghdad to Berlin. Vladimir Putin would leave off mere meddling and install himself, midst bathroom fixtures of gold, in Putin Tower. Xi Jinping would be General Secretary of the Communist Party of China, President of the People's Republic of China, and Mayor of Cupertino, California.

But perhaps politics isn't the best example. There's too much of it that would be good riddance. Let's take the example of all the hard subjects I so assiduously avoided in college, the dreaded STEM subjects – where one was tested with real questions and was expected to give real answers.

I'd argue that science, technology, engineering, and mathematics are also dependent on B.S.

Not that there's any B.S. in these fields. (Well, there is – but there shouldn't be.) Rather, the problem is who funds science, technology, engineering, and mathematics?

Usually it's fools – like me. We who are full of B.S. are the people who rise to be corporate chief executives, presidents of universities, and high plenipotentiaries holding the public purse strings.

Poor Jim Bridenstine, the new NASA administrator, will have to go before a Congressional budget committee and say, "We need $10 billion for the James Webb Space Telescope so that we can peer deep into the universe and investigate across the fields of astronomy and cosmology to observe some of the most distant events and objects in the universe, such as the formation of the first galaxies."

Congressman: "Why? Are there voters out there?"

Jim: "Um... " (And this is where Jim needs B.S. He needs somebody like me to rush to his side.)

Jim: "Perhaps I should let my staff member, Junior Space Cadet O'Rourke, explain the further benefits of the James Webb Space Telescope."

Congressman: "Let the witness be sworn in."

Me: "The Honorable Representative will be pleased to know that, besides its telescopic properties, the James Webb Space Telescope also employs an eight-foot array of mirrors which, if the situation requires, can be reversed to collect solar rays and focus them in an intense beam directed at Bashar al-Assad, causing his head to pop like a kernel of Orville Redenbacher's in a 1,200-watt microwave."

Congressman: "$10 billion? OK."


P.J. O'Rourke