15 April 2010

the perils of unacknowledged privilege

So I've been reading the campus daily lately - it's student run, student written, presumably student-read (although MY particular batch of students this semester claim not to read it very often). At any rate, I find the paper to be an interesting and infuriating cultural artefact. Lately, it's been stoking the flames of my brightly-burning fire of curmudgeonhood. I'm not even close to being old enough to be an Official Curmudgeon, but I've got the spirit of one.

But in all honesty, the paper - or rather, its writers - highlight some pretty serious social problems that get ignored far too frequently. One of these is class privilege, one of the more insidious privileges because so often, those who have it are utterly blind to the fact that they are, in fact, privileged. Maybe your parents only bought you a Toyota when you turned 16, and not a BMW; the fact remains: your parents could afford to buy you a car, at all. Many people's parents do not have this luxury. Many people's parents can't afford a car of their own.

Wednesday's issue of the paper had an appallingly naive editorial by an undergrad who is oblivious to the privileged position she inhabits. It's titled "Take your time before choosing your destiny," and is essentially a paean to cluelessness. No - that's not fair. If the author had taken some more classes that dealt with questions of pedagogy, if, perhaps, she had read any of the (many) essays on "what is the university," if she had been a bit older than a sophomore or junior in college - I think, then, that she could have written an article supporting the classic liberal arts education. In effect, she's supporting such a thing, encouraging other students to delay selecting a major or choosing a career until they've really spent time thinking about it, looking around and exploring their options. This is what a liberal arts education does (along with any number of other things).

However: our writer did NOT write a brilliant position piece on the value of a liberal arts essay. Instead, she wrote a cringe-inducing expose of her own obliviousness.

Her essay begins: "I have no idea what I'm doing with my life after college. In fact, I haven't had a clear direction in mind for quite some time."
Well, it's nice that you're willing to admit this publicly; I certainly wouldn't broadcast my own lack of direction to my entire campus. But it's also a fair statement, in some ways; many college undergrads don't have a very clear map of their future plans, especially in the first two years of their studies. They aren't encouraged to, either, unless by their parents (and when the parents are encouraging a career path, it's usually to the detriment of the student's mental well-being). The university, as far as I can tell, does not take much of a proactive role in encouraging its students to think about what they want for their lives after graduation, beyond "make money."

Our writer goes on to say: "I read it is normal for people to change jobs as many as seven times throughout their lifetime. After all, a life goal isn't exactly something that can be established simply." Horrible syntax aside, this statement struck me as, again, naive and ill-informed. It is true that people change jobs, on average, 5-7 times. But this is not the same as changing careers. This does not mean you get the option of drifting from one profession to another, trying them out until you find the one that sticks. You don't get to try teaching for five years, entrepreneurship for seven years, landscape design for three years, etc. And changing careers - once you've been in one for several years - is NOT an easy thing to do.

And then our editorialist comes to THE passage that really made my blood boil: "I think that people tend to forget that entering the workforce is not the only option that they have after graduating from college."

Let's say that again, for those in the back who weren't paying attention:
I think that people tend to forget that entering the workforce is not the only option that they have after graduating from college

Oh really.  And just what, precisely, might the other options be?

"If you have the means, traveling is an option that might point you in the direction of a career or at least give you some extra time to think about it."

Now here is where the daily's editor-in-chief should have stepped in and said: "look honey, your opinion is valuable and all but this is just some serious bullshit. You're talking out of your privileged ass, and our readers deserve better."

Nowhere does the writer acknowledge the massive amounts of privilege one exhibits simply by being able to attend college in the first place. Roughly 30% of the American population attends college or university. That means roughly 70% DOES NOT. For one reason or another, many people never have the chance, the opportunity, to go to college.
Nowhere does the writer acknowledge that for many, many people, graduation from college brings with it tens of thousands of dollars of student loan debt that has to be repaid.
And the most blatant misstep of all here: nowhere does this writer acknowledge - or even seem to be aware of - the fact that actually, entering the workforce IS the only option the vast majority of us have. Because what happens, after college or high school or grad school or whenever you actually "grow up" and enter this so-called "real world," is that you have to pay bills. You have rent, you have groceries, car insurance, health insurance (if you're lucky). You have to buy a professional wardrobe, whether that means sturdy workboots or well-tailored suits. You have to get all the things one needs for one's apartment or house - bedding and towels and pots & pans and doormats and furniture. Not even nice things - just the basic basics. Your student loans come due within six or twelve months, and then you need the capacity to write a large check every single month. You have to pay for parking, for utilities, for vehicle registration, for public transportation. You begin having conversations with your parents in which they worry about their retirement funds, they worry about the excessively high costs of health care for those adults caught in between retirement and the age of Medicare. You begin realizing your parents are on a fixed income, and can't just shower largesse on you for all eternity. You have to be entirely responsible for your own life.
And that means MONEY.
it means a lot of money.
And the only avenue to money is to - ta-da! - enter the workforce.

Look, it's fantastic if Mom & Dad can afford to support you indefinitely. If you have no problem being an adult with a university degree who is almost completely financially dependent on her parents - well, good for you. Better if your parents have scads of money to deposit in your bank account every month without ever missing it from their own pockets.

But a lot of us don't get that break. The vast majority of us don't. NPR told me yesterday that the number of people in the US who report incomes of $100,000 or more is only 20% of the population (earning, incidentally, 56% of the wealth).

Yes, traveling is fantastic. That's why study abroad exists.
It would be wonderful if we could all drift through life as oblivious to financial pressures as this writer evidently is. It would be great if we could all just take a year or two "off" to travel, to explore the world, to "find ourselves" and our destinies. But those years "off" have to be paid for by SOMEONE.
I'm shocked at the number of my senior students who tell me, blithely, that they have no immediate plans after graduation, that they will be taking a year "off" to figure out what they want to do.

It may be very curmudgeonly of me to say so, but figuring out what you want to do is why you go to college. You've had FOUR YEARS to think and experiment and travel and ponder while supported by parents, scholarships, loans. At the end of those years, you don't get - and shouldn't expect - more time to just drift.

When I finished college, I intended to find a job with a nonprofit, study for the LSAT, decide if I wanted to go to law school. This plan bombed. I couldn't find a real job, and instead spent 11 months working for just above minimum wage as an office temp. I worked long hours for very, very little pay and NO benefits. if i got sick, I lost a day's pay. If I lost a day's pay, I would have to put that month's utility bill on my credit card. I also had no health insurance, which meant that getting sick was not an option. I couldn't afford doctor's visits and I couldn't afford prescriptions. I lived, literally, week to week on those temp paychecks. There were NO extras. I couldn't afford nice work clothes - everything I bought to wear came from marshall's, tjmaxx, or target. and not the nice target stuff, either. A lot of what I wore came from salvation army or goodwill.

And I was pretty well off compared to most Americans. I had a paid-for car; I had parents who - thankfully - could help me out when I got sick with bronchitis and needed to see a doctor. I was sharing the rent and utilities of an apartment with my then-partner. I had no children, no undergrad loan payments. I lived close to the bone and it sucked majorly, but I never had to really go without - I always had food, for example, I always had clothing.

I am a huge believer in the liberal arts education. I am passionate about study abroad. I don't think students should follow a money-track in college, pursuing the most fiscally profitable majors - university isn't trade school. But university IS the time when some people have the luxury of looking around, of trying out different options, of taking an array of courses that introduce them to different kinds of ideas, ways of thinking. To believe - and not just believe, but to actually advocate in the student daily - that there is a vast amount of time to do these things, unfettered, post-graduation, is to be painfully naive at best, and willfully blind to your own privilege and foolish at worst.

There is a very, very good reason that most people think they have to enter the workforce after college, and that reason is that they do not lead privileged lives where someone always has money to give them. Working sucks - that's why it's work, and it's why they have to pay you to do it. But no one can live without money, and for the overwhelming majority of Americans, there ARE no handouts: we have to work if we want to eat.


  1. ...you're either workin' for your self...or you're workin' for the man...thanks for saying nice things about whirled peas...check out my new think tank...


  2. I tried leaving a comment, but it never showed up. Do you have it set that comments must be approved before they post?

  3. anonymous: no, I don't think so. I *want* the comments set to just post automatically, by anyone. I shall inspect my settings!