17 May 2012

Welfare + Doctorates

Chronicle of Higher Education | Stacey Patton | The Ph.D. Now Comes With Food Stamps

If I had read this at my laptop rather than on my Kindle while on the bus I would probably have something to say about every other paragraph in this piece. The subjects of the this piece, and the author as well, are being whiny brats. On the other hand the subjects have also gotten the short end of the stick.

As to the latter: Academia pumps out way, way more PhDs — in the humanities especially — than it needs. Grad programs and undergrad advisers should be far more realistic with people about what life will be like when (if!) they finish their dissertations.

On the other hand, we don't expect car salesmen to talk people out of the rear-engined coupe in fire-engine red even though we all know it's not going to be worth it ten years down the line. That responsibility is on the purchaser. And unlike over-expensive, un-productive BA degrees, people deciding to get their sociology PhD are adults.

Regarding the former: Prices are not some moral judgement nor are your wages a prize for doing well and following the rules. Yes, you are bright and special and have worked hard. The world still doesn't owe you anything. Only being able to command a small wage is not a punishment or an injustice; it is a signal from the universe that what you are selling is not that valuable to consumers. Government programs and policies can (temporarily) paper over that fact, but at the end of the day the information being sent through that price signal is real.

I do feel a little bad for these people. They've been hearing their whole lives that more education is always good. Politicians and public figures insist that learning is literally priceless, that you can never have too much of it, and that more is always better when it comes to school. These people sat through 13 years of school in which their teachers got raises merely for having grad degrees, not for actually having learned productive skills. Those are all bullshit lessons. It's too bad they learned them.

Generations have grown up in our society and never been told that you make money if and only if you satisfy other people's desires. In fact in my schools I was specifically told this was not the case.

And so we've ended up with people like Elliot Stegall, a 51-year old married English lecturer on food stamps:
"As a man, I felt like I was a failure. I had devoted myself to the world of cerebral activity. I had learned a practical skill that was elitist," he says. "Perhaps I should have been learning a skill that the economy supports."
I think Steagall is more than a little confused about what a "practical skill" is.

The kicker is that despite living for over a dozen years as a lecturer he's still a grad student working on his dissertation in film studies! If that's what his passion is then good for him. But you don't get to follow all of your goals.

Kisha Hawkins-Sledge, 35 year-old single mother of two, seems to have the same misconception:
Ms. Hawkins-Sledge says she had preconceived notions about people on government assistance before she herself began receiving aid. "I went to school. I went to grad school," she says. "I thought that welfare was for people who didn't go to school and couldn't get a good job."
Jobs do not follow from degrees. Jobs follow from meeting someone else's demand. You do not get a job because you fulfilled your own desire to explore the portrayal of Vietnam vets in American cinema; you get a job because you can fulfill someone else's desire.

PS The words "science," technology," "engineering" and "math" appear zero times in this article. Draw your own conclusions.

1 comment:

  1. Well, they can always go on and get a law degree, and then become a politician or a policy wonk. You don't need any real skill there, except with words, which is what they are supposed to be experts in.