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Sunday, February 15, 2009

The value of a college degree

By Dick Hirsch

I attended one of those small Liberal Arts colleges where some people majored in Classics, studying Greek and Latin. I never studied a word of either, but I mention it only to provide some insight into the kind of traditional academic program to which we were all exposed.

I never understood exactly why a person would major in Greek and Latin, but I really admired those who did. Others majored in subjects like Philosophy or Biology, Religion or Government, Physics or History, Mathematics or Chemistry. You get the idea. It was then a very typical approach at small colleges where the goal was to produce well-rounded, enlightened graduates who would appreciate the value of a curriculum that dated back generations. Such studies, they claimed, were excellent ways to prepare for the real world.

Me? I was an English major. I decided I would have a head start on the program since I already spoke the language, had once won a spelling bee, and had read some books such as The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and Huckleberry Finn. There were no journalism courses, just as there were no what you might describe as “trade” courses designed to train a person for a certain skill in a particular occupation.

This has all been provided as background.

The point of the story is that I recently participated in a somewhat selective telephone survey of classmates aimed at discovering what the graduates are doing today, whether they are working or retired, whether they have moved to Florida or North Carolina, or are still living in the northeast, midwest, or wherever else they chose to settle.

Since I would always prefer to ask questions rather than answer them, I volunteered to be one of those giving the survey. I have always told people that you never know when or where you will happen upon a good story; they just present themselves, usually unexpectedly, and often in the damnedest places.

Among a number of others, I called Johnny Roberts to seek some answers about his life and how his Liberal Arts education had impacted his career. Roberts isn’t his real name. He is not doing anything illegal or immoral, but I just decided I’d identify him with an alias because I don’t know whether he wants the world to know what he is doing for a living.

He is a professional poker player, participating in games where the entry fees start at $10,000, and he plays in places as obvious as Las Vegas and the Caribbean and as remote as Australia and New Zealand.

As you might expect, he earns money playing poker. I don’t think he would take the risk if the rewards weren’t within his grasp. He hinted that at times the rewards have been and continue to be substantial, but he was understandably vague about that phase of the interview. I asked him if any winnings were taxable and he said: “Could be,” not a very satisfying answer, but I didn’t press him.

The story is that along with the various required courses and electives that Roberts adopted for his schedule, he began to play poker on a regular basis, first casually and then more seriously.

“We played in the Delta Phi house where I was a member and a small group of the guys enjoyed the game,” he recalled. “There were many nights when we played very late.”

Each fraternity had its reputation: there were houses for jocks, houses for the wealthy preppies, houses with diverse members, and houses for scholars. My memory insists that Delta Phi was for the serious students, guys who would stay up late studying. Roberts said that perception was only partly true. Gambling was a popular activity, he said. It was there he learned the importance of the impassive poker face, concealing his reaction, whether glee or pain.

“I learned to play the game in that house and I liked the excitement of the competition, the mixture of skill and temperament with the luck of the draw, and I liked winning. I won my spending money playing poker.”

I wasn’t surprised to discover that Roberts majored in math and spent years working in various positions for a major manufacturer of computer hardware. After a period of employment, he resigned and became a computer consultant, however, he still was playing poker in his off hours, sometimes traveling to tournament sites. Eventually he quit to devote his work life to poker, becoming another successful alumnus who extolls the benefits of a liberal education.


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