The Chronicle of Highly Educated Whining

The Chronicle of Higher Education (CHE) has been getting a lot of flak lately as some of the more conservative (read: Matt Drudge and Neal Boortz) have found some of the typical CHE leftist articles to be showing up on their radar. CHE has always, as far as I can tell from the time I was a professor, been rabidly leftist. So, from their perspective they must be somewhat surprised that someone outside of academia shows interest (or surprise).

Two articles have been receiving a lot of attention lately. The first was a flap over the firing of a blogger who had the audacity to skewer one of academia’s sacred cows – Black Studies programs. Ultimately, CHE is a company and has a product to deliver, and if their customers demand the head of one of their bloggers they have every right to remove someone from their staff. The fact that they did it for pointing out the emperor has no clothes, well, is all the more ironic considering they consider themselves the last bastion of frank, academic debate.

[Update, the author of the blog article has written about the reaction to her post, which is worth the read if you’re interested in following the story.]

The other, also emotionally charged, is called “The Ph.D Now Comes With Food Stamps.” This obviously resonated with me quite a bit because, as a ‘starving’ graduate student who had to sleep on donated sofa cushions kept together with a fitted sheet (every morning I would wake up on the hard floor, feeling like I had just parted the cushioned-sea), I could understand the idea of a struggling student quite well.

There is no question that the educational system in America is totally screwed up. One of the key factors for me leaving to work on my own consulting career was that the insult to the low-paying injury was when the University I was working for was hiring students that I taught web design and multimedia to redo the school’s website at a 25% premium over what I was being paid to teach them.

I said that was part of the reason, not the main one, though. I never expected that being a teacher was going to make me rich. Sure, there were professors making $75,000 or $80,000 and administrators making well over $100k, but they had been working for 10-15 years before getting to that level. In short, if you go into teaching (or academia) to make money you’re too stupid to be allowed to teach anyone anything.

But I never, ever, expected anyone else to pay my way as a graduate student. While doing my masters, I counted every penny. I slept on those damn sofa cushions. I ate peanut butter and fluff sandwiches for months because I couldn’t afford jelly (2 weeks worth of Fluff cost, at the time, $.99. Jelly was around $3). I earned $400/month from my graduate stipend of doing teaching and computer lab maintenance, of which $240 went to rent. You can do the math (I hope!) as to how difficult making ends meet was on the remainder.

My doctoral program was a little better, but I worked even harder. At one point I was holding down 3 jobs, working for a consulting firm, teaching two undergraduate classes, and doing temp work in addition to my normal class load. I was adamant that I wasn’t going to take out a loan so that when I graduated, I would – in fact – be completely free. I would owe nobody anything.

I was also under no illusions that if I was going to make any money, teaching was going to be only a part of the equation. When I was 20 I had a 10-year goal: graduate, become a professor, and do consulting on the side (where I believed there was real money to be made).

That’s why this comment in CHE really threw me for a loop:

I wonder what it would be like if we all could fulfill those dreams we had as children… It sounds Idealistic … but I’d rather love what I’m doing than go into a field just for the money. It seems to me that our priorities in this country have been mixed up for a long time. We shouldn’t live to work or work to live; our lives and our work should be intertwined in a healthy way. I say all of that to say I pity you and those who think like you for thinking that the primary reason one should get an education is to get a job.

To me, this is the heart of the problem with our ‘entitlement’ attitude in the US. We want our education to fulfill emotional goals, rather than address practical survival first. To this mindset, the first priority is to the sense of entitlement, self-esteem, and self-fulflillment, and everything else is secondary. To suggest that they should earn those qualities, including prioritizing survival facets as the first order of business and delay the gratification they desire, is anathema.

This is a very recent problem. Before the 1950s, these kinds of entitlements simply didn’t exist. If you didn’t work, you didn’t eat. To be dependent upon someone else caused a great deal of shame upon you and your family.

This also underscores the issue with the Occupy mentality. The scary part is that they – like the commenter quoted above – actually believe that what they want is more crucial to them than the production of value to get what they want. They believe that the value exists as an existential element, not something that is built, created, or produced.

Everybody wants something. We want to be emotionally satisfied, we want to have nice things. We want to be loved. But often what we want conflicts with the realities of the situation. I want, for instance, to work for myself and make millions of dollars, but the reality is that certain elements (health issues, educational background, marketplace factors) means that I have very real constraints within which to work. Moreover, I knew this going forward.

This is the result of the “participation ribbon” society. Everyone “deserves” first place, so no one earns first place. Everyone “deserves” to be happy, so happiness becomes the default, rather than the aspiration. Everyone “deserves” to get a do-over, so no one needs to suffer the consequences of bad decisions. This is true from the government level, the banks ‘too big to fail’ level, all the way down to the “dropping the lowest quiz grade” in school.

We’ve tried so hard to make everyone a success that we’ve failed ourselves in the process.