Cause for courage

I spoke with a friend a few months ago who does hiring for a small private high school.  They had an opening at the beginning of the school year for a teaching assistant, a position with no benefits that paid less than $10 per hour.  Most of the applicants, he told me, had master’s degrees.

This kind of news is generally taken as cause for panic.  QUICK!  Get as many degrees as you can because even the low-paying jobs are in high demand and you’ll be competing for them with people who have lots of degrees!  This panic is making everyone more stressed, more exhausted, more frustrated, demoralized, and sick.  Panic is good for raising the bar on college admissions standards, but it’s not good for people.

A few weeks after my friend told me about his master’s-degreed teaching assistants, I came upon the Quit Your Day Job series on the blog at etsy.com.  The series profiles people who started selling their creations on Etsy and worked their way up to earning a living at it. Etsy’s not for everyone, but neither is working in an office, or in a hospital, or in a school.  The opportunity of Etsy makes a great case for turning away from panic and toward opening our eyes to what’s actually happening, what’s actually possible.  Art has this longstanding reputation as a pursuit that won’t earn you a living, and the experience of many many artists on Etsy and elsewhere demonstrates otherwise.  It may have been true once that it was next to impossible to make a living as an artist, when the only way to sell art was to convince gallery owners to show your work while you lived on peanut butter until maybe a few paintings sold.  But it’s not the reality anymore.  And if it’s not the case for art, then the chances are good that it’s also not for other pursuits we tend to belittle and dismiss as potential sources of income and success.

Jobs may be scarce, but money isn’t, and opportunities aren’t.  There are more ways to earn a living than there have ever been – more ways to earn a living without credentials, without college degrees.  Those means of livelihood may or may not happen to suit a particular person; I’m not actually an advocate for No College or Training Ever.  I just think we’d be wise to notice that like most things, college serves a particular purpose, under particular circumstances. It does not give everyone what they need just by virtue of being there and conferring degrees.  It does not provide for people unless it’s part of a path that makes sense for them.

And panic, over terrible economic times and the scarcity of jobs, while popular and comfortable, will only get us more of the same.  If we can muster the courage to really look around, to see what’s changed, to imagine where each of us might fit and how we might distinguish ourselves, we’ll start realizing what’s become possible and what a time of opportunity this can actually be.

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4 Responses

  1. Thank you for this. While my oldest has been in college prep classes and applying for scholarships, this *perfectly* fits my youngest son. Thank you for validating the opportunity for choice.

  2. I love this line: “Panic is good for raising the bar on college admissions standards, but it’s not good for people.”

    One of the maybe deep ironies about our increasingly unequal economy (the 1% and the 99% and all that) is that the 1% (and maybe even the top 10%) has a lot more money to spend on art and other luxury items and services. And increasingly those folks don’t want what everyone else has; they want things that are custom, original, and politically correct. The Medicis were good for art in Italy. So I guess the concentration of wealth might open some doors for folks down the line.

    I don’t mean for this to sound so cynical really, though I know it does. Today’s NYT piece on the impact of gutting public sector jobs — a whole new swath of the middle class eliminated — makes me sad. The entrepreneurial road won’t be available to everyone but it sure does seem like that road is getting wider, and maybe that’s one silver lining to what is otherwise a generally unfortunate thing about the loss of good jobs for most people. No doubt most schools aren’t preparing kids for that shifting future.

    • Well, I’d say if you sound pessimistic it’s only because the outlook is certainly bleak for many. And what I’ve written in the post is certainly intended for an audience of sufficient privilege and resource to consider encouraging a child who’s bent on pursuing a career in, say, art, even if what her parents had in mind was a nice law degree. But what ails us when it comes to educating our affluent is not so different from what ails us when it comes to educating the rest. We tell kids that as long as they stay in school (how long we mean tends to vary depending on who we’re talking to and what we think they can accomplish, which is another problem entirely), they’ll be OK.

      School sets you up for earning a living, we tell them, which is somewhat true, some of the time. We don’t tell them that it’s possible that you’ll get a job because you have a degree, but you could lose it and if you do you’ll have to figure out what to do next. And we don’t give them the slightest notion as to how to figure it out. We don’t tell them that how you manage and invest your money could make as much of a difference as how much of it you earn in the first place. We don’t teach them navigation skills. Probably in large part because most of us don’t have them ourselves. We, too, were told that if you just follow the rules and get good grades, the rest will be taken care of.

      I like to imagine what it would be like if instead of school teachers who were responsible only for teaching reading and writing and the rest of the venerated academic subject areas, children had access to adults who were charged with identifying each child’s greatest strengths and capacities, and equipping them with the skills they’d need to find their way in the world making optimal use of those capacities, such that they would be able to plan for and manage setbacks and hardships. We leave this kind of teaching to parents, though it’s obvious that for the most part, no one taught anyone’s parents these skills either. And along the way we trust that we can get the external forces (of economy, technology, etc.) that bear on each child’s experience to cooperate enough to keep everyone buying in.

      Our addiction to academic education keeps us looking noble, but it’s not doing *anyone* any favors when it comes to navigating actual life in a constantly morphing, slippery time.

  3. This is so well said, all of it. This: “We don’t tell them that it’s possible that you’ll get a job because you have a degree, but you could lose it and if you do you’ll have to figure out what to do next.”

    And this: “Our addiction to academic education keeps us looking noble, but it’s not doing *anyone* any favors when it comes to navigating actual life in a constantly morphing, slippery time.”

    If we can help kids listen for their own peculiar callings and capacities early on rather than force-feeding them a standardized set of expectations, we would all be in much better shape I think. It’s a lot harder in one’s mid-forties to try and retroactively figure out the missing pieces (including certain kinds of self-knowledge). Not that I’m speaking from personal experience or anything. 🙂

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