Arguments from Authority

My daughter texted me from school today. She was in her freshman humanities class which is basically an English/social studies mashup. Anna texts me from school a lot. When she does so it’s usually the best part of my day. Today, like most days, it was because she wanted to share something funny with me.

Today, however, my credentials and I were the butt of the joke:


Anna later explained that her teacher was not talking about me, my political science degree and my sports writing career specifically. Rather, she was just making a point about how, when you read something, you should be critical of the writer, who he or she is and what his or her background is. Today they happened to be discussing an article about the value of a liberal arts education and the teacher approvingly noted that its author had a history degree so, obviously, he knew what he was talking about. The crack about the political science degree-possessing sports writer was an imaginary horrible meant to portray a true ignoramus. 

I won’t lie: I was less than pleased about all of this. Not because I thought of it as some sort of personal attack, as I have never met her teacher and she doesn’t know a thing about me or my career. And not because of the underlying lesson, as I agree it is vitally important to assess and be critical of one’s information sources. Rather, I was pissed about how superficial a notion it is to look at a person’s formal education to assess a person’s credibility. 

I’ve gone at length about my unconventional career path, but I’m not the only person doing something radically different than their college transcript might suggest they’d one day do. My father grew up working on cars at his father’s taxi cab company and wanted to work on jet engines one day but, due to a typographical error by the United States Navy, wound up in meteorology school and spent the next 40 years as a weather man. Anna’s mother has a degree in French but has spent the past 23 years working in the office furniture business. My best friend from college has an M.A. in history but has nonetheless spent most of the past 20 years working at technology companies in Silicon Valley. I’m sure all of us know many people who have careers that are completely unrelated to whatever it was they studied in college and who can speak as authorities on those topics regardless of what they happened to major in back in the day. 

My displeasure with what I heard today was not, however, simply about a teacher who does not seem to appreciate that career paths are often crooked. It’s about her seeming not to appreciate the value of a crooked career path in and of itself. 

I am not exactly a typical or a popular figure in the baseball writing world. When I began this job a decade ago it was pretty unusual for a large media company like NBC to give someone with no journalism experience the kind of platform I have. One used to pay their dues for years, serving time as an agate guy, a high school football stringer, a backup beat writer and then, maybe, if everything broke right, they could be a columnist, which is roughly equivalent to what I do. I jumped the line. I had never been part of the baseball writing fraternity. What’s more, my writing tends to skew pretty sharp and critical and includes a lot of media criticism as well so, while I have made many friends in the business over the years, I’m still not welcome in the club. If my credentials had been in order — if I had gone to journalism school and if I had written game stories for the Des Moines Register or the Sacramento Bee — I’d likely be invited to more meetings and parties. 

But I’d probably also not have this job.

NBC was late to the online sports game and, when they launched my website, they wanted to make up for lost time. They did so not by aping what everyone else had done ten years earlier, but by making some noise. They hired a lawyer to be their football writer and, with that precedent set, hired one to be their baseball writer too. Our lack of a journalism background and our willingness to say and do whatever the hell we wanted to was a feature, not a bug, and nearly a decade later it’s still working pretty well. It’s working well, I’d argue, precisely because neither Mike Florio nor I approach our job like someone who went to J-school would and because, as such, we give readers something they can’t get anywhere else. Our lack of traditional qualifications for our job were strengths, not weaknesses. NBC’s hiring people with unconventional resumes helped them solve a problem they likely could not have solved (i.e. catching up with their competitors quickly) if they had done the conventional thing.

A couple of lawyers with liberal arts backgrounds are not alone in that, of course. There are a lot of people who contribute to society in ways far more important than writing about sports despite the fact that they are not doing what they had set out to do back in college. There are companies being run by people without business degrees, artists who never went to art school, musicians who never had lessons, and tons and tons of people making a difference in the world despite the fact that they simply fell into jobs adjacent to — or often not adjacent to — the disciplines they  initially set out to pursue. 

That’s true even of the guy who wrote the article about the value of a liberal arts education they were discussing in my daughter’s class today. The guy who was deemed OK by Anna’s teacher because he had a history degree. His name is David Brooks. He’s a columnist for the New York Times who didn’t spend a day in journalism school and who hasn’t spent a minute pursuing the academic study of history since he graduated from the University of Chicago 35 years ago. 

There’s probably a lesson in there someplace. If Anna doesn’t learn it at school, I’ll make a point to talk to her about it separately. I think I can do it too, despite the fact that I didn’t study education. 

Craig Calcaterra

Craig is the national baseball writer for NBCSports.com. He writes about things other than sports at Craigcalcaterra.com. He lives in New Albany, Ohio with his wife, two kids, and many cats.