Sunday, January 29, 2012

The big American educational lie

I clearly have been the beneficiary of a lot of good fortune ... it definitely could be called "luck".  For many years, I congratulated myself because the educational process I went through culminated in my obtaining what was for me a dream job right out of graduate school.  I like to think I used that opportunity productively and became a contributor to science as a result.  At the time it happened I realized how fortunate I was - in fact, it was hard to believe things worked out that way.  But the notion that "luck is the combination of opportunity and preparedness" is only valid when there's an opportunity!  As time has passed, I've reflected on that good fortune and I've become aware of several stories of people who have not been so fortunate as I.

The big American educational lie often is part of what is spouted by the right-wing conservatives and their sycophants who oppose vehemently any social welfare program (unless it's for the benefit of rich people and corporations).  They portray the recipients of social welfare as cynical parasites, feeding at the trough of governmental largess at the expense of the rest of "hard-working Americans".  They've produced extended arguments that are little more than stereotyping of welfare recipients.  I've seen within my circle of friends some of the people who like others are unable to find good jobs and so would be included in the right-wing category of lazy layabouts.  Some of them refuse to accept welfare, in fact!  They just keep on struggling, too proud to take what they could receive from government programs.

As an example, I know one young man who went to extraordinary lengths to obtain his diploma from a university program of national repute.  In order to pay for this, since he had no financial assistance - no one to pay his academic bills (to say nothing of the cost of living) - he has had to work at menial jobs after school to pay for his education and support his family.  These jobs are far below his intellectual capability, and his wife had to help support the family by working as well.  His earlier diploma from a lesser university wasn't enough to satisfy him - he felt he had to earn a diploma that carried more clout!  So he stayed the course and graduated from this more challenging program, in a process that demanded years of sacrifices from him and his wife.  So what does he have to show for all that effort and sacrifice?  He must be living the American dream by now, right?  Actually, he has precisely ... nothing!  His diploma guaranteed him absolutely zero, of course, and he's been unable to find work in the discipline for which he worked so hard and sacrificed so much.  Seeing his plight makes me very sad, but it also makes me very much aware of the good fortune that worked in my favor during better economic times.  And to think the right-wing ideologues would unhesitatingly classify him as a parasite if he accepted welfare makes me furious!

This young man surely deserves something for all his hard work and, according to the mantra of the right-wing advocates I know, it should be his reward for all the effort he put out.  He isn't shiftless and lazy in any way - far from it!  But the big lie is that hard work and education are the keys to success in America.  The reality is that they aren't much of a guarantee of anything.  I'm not so arrogant as to infer that my good fortune was due only to my efforts - I worked hard to be prepared but I'm also willing to admit that I was the beneficiary of luck.  My young friend has not been lucky - he worked hard to obtain an education and his reward is nothing more than an empty promise.

It's infuriating to hear all this patronizing crap from the right wing about how the jobless need to get a job and earn their place in the American paradise.  It's outright rubbish to paint everyone in need of welfare as some sort of social parasite, and to preach the mantra of "Get an education and get a job!"  Even if they can somehow manage to pay the educational system what it costs to receive the "benefits" of a diploma, those institutions who were delighted to take that tuition money from their students, will shrug their shoulders when that diploma doesn't land their graduates a good-paying job in the subject area of their academic degree.  The universities hire only a small fraction of university graduates - the rest must look elsewhere.  In hard times, many graduates have a tough time finding that good job the universities seem to promise, but which is actually beyond their capability to give.  They take in that tuition money but it's no guarantee of anything!

Many welfare recipients are ashamed and embarrassed to be forced to depend on social welfare programs to survive.  Must we make needy people be ashamed of their condition, even when they did all the right things and by bad fortune, were not rewarded with their share of the American dream?


Justin Reid said...

Chuck I couldn't agree more with your post.

As a student from a lower-middle class family in college right now I've indeed had similar struggles. My biggest socioeconomic problems have, by far, come in my college years and I've had to take a lot of flack because I don't have an iPad, smartphone, or other things that are common to this day and age.

Like you said about your job out of graduate school, this fact of life applies to the atmospheric science/meteorological community as well. Linking to your posts about forecasting being superceded by technology, if I didn't know how to computer program, or use GIS, I would not have the internship I would have now. I would also feel that the meteorological community would consider me irrelevant or becoming so if I didn't have my technology skill set (even though I've done undergraduate research). In my opinion education is the way out of many terrible situations, but the biggest caveat is you have to know what take in order to be presented with an opportunity.

I hope my meteorology experience will lead to a path similar to yours since I want to work in severe weather research in graduate school. But as this economy shows, nothing is guaranteed.

Have a wonderful day,
Justin Lynn Reid

Anonymous said...

It really is refreshing to hear this from someone who has gone through the system and gotten the highest "degree" possible. The only thing I'd like to add, with a chuckle, is that some of the most incompetent people I've ever met in my life have had fancy letters after their names. And just as importantly, some of the most interesting, intelligent, and insightful people I ever met, I worked with at McDonald's or other minimum-wage jobs. And a lot of them worked a lot harder than I see anyone working in the academic world, knowing full well the only pay they'd get for it would be a sense of personal pride.

Chuck Doswell said...

Matt, I agree with your statement, although it's a tad off-point in this blog. Getting diplomas isn't much of a guarantee of anything except you were somehow able to afford your academic education, and you had the perseverance to finish what you started. I, too, know PhDs who are incompetent - but this isn't cause to disrespect everyone with a doctorate. What matters is what people accomplish with their opportunities. Not everyone will have equal opportunity, even in America which supposedly claims equal opportunity as one of our national goals. Make the most you can with what you have and you'll certainly have my respect!