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May-June 2011

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Plus Ça Change: A Fascination with Plumbers

2010. “College is fine and a worthy goal, but when your toilet or faucet is broken, you don't need a PhD. You need a plumber.”

- Eugene Morgan, Letter to the Editor, Washington Post

2008. “I would find it a whole lot easier to live in a society with a tenth as many lawyers and professors than to live in a society with a tenth as many plumbers.”

- Charles Murray, W.H. Brady Scholar, American Enterprise Institute

2000. “In the past couple of decades, there has arisen in the land the notion that college is for everyone—an entitlement, like Medicare or Social Security.…Meanwhile, crafts and vocations that perform essential functions in society—electricians, plumbers, computer techs—go begging for competent entrants. Too many young people would rather have a college degree than be usefully educated for their real talents and interests.”

- The Providence Journal editorial

1971. “There is a shortage of plumbers and a glut of history PhDs.…‘The atmosphere of the seventies isn't going to be as favorable for higher education as it was in the fifties and sixties,’ says Logan Wilson of the American Council of Education [sic]. Again, a layman must wonder whether that is necessarily bad.”

- Tom Wicker, Associate Editor, The New York Times

1948. “[T]he man with the callus—the bricklayer, the plumber, the carpenter, the farmer—is the present aristocrat among those who toil for money. And he paints the town red on Saturday night, while the white collar man sits at home glumly pondering why he frittered away his youth learning to conjugate ‘amo, amas, amat’ when he could have been learning a trade.…It's the new American success story.”

- Hal Boyle,Associated Press correspondent

1910. “The time has come when it is more credit to a man to be a good plumber than a good Greek scholar.”

- Los Angeles Times editorial

(For sources, go to this feature at

Lara K. Couturier is a consultant specializing in higher education policy. She previously served as the interim principal investigator and director of research for the Futures Project: Policy for Higher Education in a Changing World.

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