Friday, July 29, 2011

a few links making some polemics about higher education

... Being in graduate school satisfies many white requirements for happiness. They can believe they are helping the world, complain that the government/university doesn’t support them enough, claim they are poor, feel as though are getting smarter, act superior to other people, enjoy perpetual three day weekends, and sleep in every day of the week!

After acquiring a Masters Degree that will not increase their salary or hiring desirability, many white people will move on to a PhD program where they will go after their dream of becoming a professor. However, by their second year they usually wake up with a hangover and realize: “I’m going to spend six years in graduate school to make $35,000 and live in the middle of nowhere?”

After this crisis, a white person will follow one of two paths. The first involves dropping out and moving to New York, San Francisco or their original home town where they can resume the job that they left to attend graduate school.

At this point, they can feel superior to graduate school and say things like “A PhD is a testament to perseverance, not intelligence.” They can also impress their friends at parties by referencing Jacques Lacan or Slavoj Žižek in a conversation about American Idol.

The second path involves becoming a professor, moving to a small town and telling everyone how they are awful and uncultured.

... These degrees enable white people to spend four yeas of their lives reading books, writing papers and feeling great about themselves. It is a known fact that Arts students firmly believe that they are doing you/society a favor by not getting a job and reading Proust. They use this to protest for reduced tuition, more money for the arts, and special reduced student rates on things like bus passes.

In the last six or seven years I have at different times considered getting another degree, particularly a master's degree. Ten years ago I had visions of getting a master's in theology or biblical studies or philosophy or some other degree in a field of knowledge where learning is pursued for its own sake. When people talk about anti-intellectualism in American society and particularly in American Christianity, but most of all conservative Christianity, there is some foundation to the complaints. But at another level it can also be boiled down to the sarcasm outlined in Stuff White People Like.

By the time I graduated with my mostly useless bachelor's degree in journalism I had discovered that the professor who took over the teaching post knew zero about the local journalism scene. Unlike his predecessor he was completely useless for networking any work after I graduated. Whereas before I was taught by a seasoned East Coast professional writer who also knew the publishing scene in the Puget Sound she got replaced with a layout editor from south in the state. I trust he was a decent layout editor but the quality of the writing in the journalism students took a dive, unsurprisingly. By then I had discovered that I was fresh out of college with a useless B.A. and no visible chances at even landing a minimum wage job (I did eventually get one of those).

And scarcely more than two months after graduating from college with my B.A. I realized that grad school was never going to happen. I didn't have the money for it and I realized I never would. I also realized that all the things I had wanted to study in grad school were things that would never land me a job ... anywhere ... of any kind. I gave up on the idea of grad school for years. Then around 2004-2006 I got the grad school bug again and began to look at possibilities for continuing education. This time I wanted to go get a degree that would be professionally useful. To make a long and tedious story very short I began to realize that I didn't want to gamble tens of thousands of dollars I didn't have (and certainly don't have now!) getting yet another degree that will not land me a job. The recession/mancession has just made this discovery more acute and unpleasant.

I considered music as a possibility for grad school and then realized that a graduate degree in music would be completely useless, no, even counterproductive. I wouldn't really appreciably expand my capacity to study and understand counterpoint in grad school. I wouldn't expand my understanding of music history in any way that I couldn't do by way of a wonderful city library system and musically enthusiastic friends and family.

What is more the sorts of historical and formal analysis of music that happens in grad school settings would not help me become a better composer. A better performer? Maybe, probably even definitely, but not as a worthwhile endeavor for the price I would pay. Whereas in my 20s I idealistically supposed that knowledge pursued for its own sake was valuable I have drawn close to the end of my 30s with a chastened perspective. You should not learn merely to make yourself a smarter or better person but to be of better service to other people as well. This is not necessarily an altruistic observation, though it can include altruism. Paradoxically we are most likely to be happy and helpful to ourselves if we are of some use to others.

I am not happy to say that at this point I have doubts about the viability of getting a college degree but I look back on my journalism degree with ambivalence. I thought at the time I was working on the degree I would get an actual journalism job. In my late teens I thought I could somehow contribute to journalism that was not as liberal as that of a lot of mainstream media. Well, now I have nothing but ambivalence about how liberal mainstream media is and what "conservative" journalism looks like (often not much better than liberal or mainstream journalism in the end). What is more it turned out there were few jobs available in the field anyway.

Even pursuing an A.A. at a community college has not worked out. It turns out once you get a B.A. federal aid disappears. It doesn't officially disappear but it practically disappears because a great deal of the funding options you would have had before getting a degree are contingent on you not already having a degree. It also turns out that if once you've gotten a B.A. that isn't very useful the way to get financial aid for any continuing education that isn't a master's depends on whether or not you're married. It is one of the persistent ironies in my life that I realize here that as a never-married man there are plenty of things in the welfare net that I am not eligible for. It adds a new, ironic twist on the idea that single people are selfish or irresponsible. Yeah, parents should be allowed to support their kids but depending on how one wishes to spin things it would appear that all those people living off of government hand-outs are not necessarily the "selfish" single people but families.

I am at a stage in my life where I do not consider going back to school to be a wise path. The more I look at the expenses of school and the likely results the less reasonable it seems. If I were to marry and have children I honestly could not say that I would encourage my children to go to a four-year college. I might say that getting an A.A. in a useful field like accounting or some technical field might be better. Or, as Fearsome Tycoon has sometimes put it, I would advise (over against my own example!) that a person get a major in something that is a useful career path fitting one's competencies and then minor in something fun. I majored in journalism and minored in music composition and it's a weird and sad irony to me that in the last year I made some money arranging and composing music while my primary field of study has been, well, not super lucrative!

Then again, in the last year I have had opportunities to write a lot of material for my friends over at Mockingbird. So, by the grace of God and due to a ton of work, I am finally getting some things done related ot my fields of study. It only took about fourteen years! In fact because I have been slowly building up a network of musical and literary and theological contacts throughout the world I have come to realize that there's nothing I could gain from grad school that I have not, by the Lord's mercies and a lot of effort, managed to obtain already. So while I have often been depressed and sometimes do get depressed about the dead end I seem to be in and how education is not even an option to get out of it I can feel somewhat grateful that, as the Christian saying puts it, that God has closed so many doors on higher education. It is for me better to have not gotten yet another useless higher education degree but have opportunities to do work that I have enjoyed doing, however modest the pay, than to have ended up in academia like I dreamed of in my late teens and early 20s.


CoffeeMatt said...

Gosh, all this stuff is so close to home, both for me and for so many people I know. Thank God I didn't blow money on Grad school. Was this close.

I have a friend who went on and did a music comp degree and is up to his eyeballs in debt and has no job prospects besides Starbucks. Another friend of mine was accepted into a fancy musicology program to study Brahms, but ended up backing out and going to law school. Now he works in Manhatten and makes bank.

There are days when it's difficult to work in higher ed (on the administrative side) and feel like we are selling people snake oil. Not all the time, but frequently. Geesh.

You obviously continue your own education through regular reading and blogging. To bad you can't get a fancy piece of paper for it.

If you don't mind, I'll throw a few more higher ed polemics of my own out there.

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

Thanks for posting those links they were both very interesting.
I have a friend who wrapped up a master's degree in piano performance at Eastman school of music. She's expecting her first baby but since she already works as a music teacher her rationale for grad school in music was that it would qualify her for a better pay grade. When she considered a doctorate she realized that the university politics weren't worth it to her and she wanted her husband to have a chance to go back to school, too. Last I recall he's a welder with a photography hobby on the side (and he takes some great wedding pictures). One of my college friends has two master's degrees in piano performance and composition and he's been a professional church musician ever since so those degrees totally make sense for him. But my own journey has been one of realizing that what I want to do is so far off the beaten path of what any academic would find interesting it's not for me. I can write my giant cycle of chamber sonatas for the guitar and woodwinds, strings, and brass without going to school. I can finish my 24 preludes and fugues for solo guitar without going to school, too. I have even been able to play some of my preludes and fugues in services at my church. When I can do all these things without a graduate degree I have to ask myself (sometimes again) what a grad degree in music history would get me that I can't already get. Ideas proposed by friends and family that I might meet my future wife in grad school are offset by hearing from some friends that grad school is actually a great way to END a romantic relationship in a lot of case. ;)