Fat Lot of Good it Did Me!
Before I'd even gotten through my first “Dick and Jane” saga, I was being firmly nudged in the direction of college. “With a college degree you'll be set for life,” my working‑class parents constantly intoned, as if they could seal my fate by sheer repetition of the phrase. Although they had never experienced such higher‑educational wonders first‑hand, they firmly believed in the first tenet of American Progress—a college education guarantees “the good life”—even if their faith in Catholic dogma had gotten a little shaky.
To set me on course towards the American Dream realized, my parents enrolled me in the local parochial schools for their strict discipline and purported academic excellence. Although most “publics” shudder at the thought, Catholic education does have its pluses: learning how to follow orders unquestioningly, brown‑nose authority figures shamelessly, tolerate oppressive conditions and absurd rules, maintain a cool head while evading said rules, and lie so convincingly you even begin believing your own Reaganesque whoppers—all invaluable in the workplace.
You can imagine my future shock at my college dorm‑mates' descriptions of their “Open School” experiences, which to my parochial ears sounded like some new form of child abuse. I couldn't understand how an education featuring such indulgence and laxity could do anything but set my tender classmates up for a life of frustration, failure, and bitter disappointment. Unhampered self‑expression? What nonsense! My education had posed no such hazards.
As an added plus, the thoughtful Catholic school student develops an amazing capacity to view even the most petrified and all‑encompassing belief systems with a heaping helping of skepticism. To this day I relish mentally demolishing sacred cows.
My radical skepticism was considerably enhanced after I ran across a dusty two‑volume set of biographies of great men and women in the elementary school library. Not one to let my schooling interfere with my education, I always kept a good book on hand to get me through the more boring classroom bullshit. However, the revelations in those two volumes generated more excitement than I'd bargained for.
For one thing, their author had the audacity to suggest that Saint Joan of Arc wasn't really a saint at all but a nut case, and that the great Queen Cleopatra of Egypt was, in the parlance of my elders, a “nigger!” Of particular interest was the section on Karl Marx, which made the social system advocated by the original Godless Communist sound suspiciously like the early Christian lifestyle our religion text kept praising to high heaven. Moreover, to a miner's daughter, this brief introduction to Marxist economic theory was akin to first noticing in a lifetime in coal country that coal is black.
Unfortunately, my new‑found appreciation of Marxism led me to vote for the Communist Party presidential candidate in the eighth‑grade mock election, a faux pas which understandably generated the mother of all lectures from our black‑gabardine‑shrouded keeper. Mercifully, because the voting was anonymous, her outrage was directed at the kids in my row of desks in general instead of myself in particular.
I never bothered to formally check those magical tomes out of the library since this might have attracted the attention of the nuns, who would have speedily yanked them off the shelf if they had even the slightest clue as to their contents. For all I know, those books are still there, patiently waiting to corrupt another hungry young mind.
My new class consciousness was to be rapidly obliterated after my matriculation at the local Catholic high school, where Time magazine was as subversive as the library got. Time was then singing the praises of something called “supply‑side economics.” What a revelation! I'd never before realized that giving obscenely wealthy people a lot more money could work such wonders for the likes of me. Being cured of this delusion in due time did have its plus side: after realizing that the supply‑siders' “unseen hand” made a great Three‑card Monte dealer, I developed a healthy skepticism for the printed word.
In the meantime, my faith in the superiority of Catholic education received a serious jolt when I learned that the local public high school had quite a few of those new wonder machines called computers, whereas we had none. As a result, I began to shop around for colleges outside the Catholic ghetto. On a visit to a well‑regarded nearby university, I received some invaluable assistance from a black Barbadoan grad student in navigating the rough seas of higher‑education planning. Before I left, he gave me one last word of advice: “For most people, education can be a double‑edged sword: it teaches you to value a lifestyle you'll be hard‑pressed to ever live.” Faced with the choice between four years of college and working as a payroll clerk in my overbearing mother's office, I dutifully ignored this advice and decided to go for the sheepskin. “After all,” I reasoned, “I ain't got nothin' better to do.”
After my near‑perfect grades and brown‑nosing ability won me a scholarship to a prestigious Quaker‑founded liberal arts college, I was sure I was well on my way to “the good life.” My parish priest was equally sure my soul was well on its way to hell. Little did Father Mac realize that the heavy dose of morality I received under his auspices (reinforced by assurances that the slightest misstep jabbed poor Jesus' sacred heart like a stiletto) would be fully reinforced at Swatmore College. However, Swatmore's heavy emphasis on educating students to busy themselves promoting “social justice” would prove a cruel disservice in the “real world.” For a contestant entering that rat race, enduring such well‑meaning brainwashing is much like paying to have your legs tied together before the starting bell sounds. Moreover, any genuine desire to do socially beneficial or even neutral work makes torment and frustration a sure bet. Fortunately, my matriculation at Swatmore, an intellectual pressure‑cooker notorious for student suicides, would postpone this agony with a more rarified one.
I entered my first English Literature class by default, since the best classes were all filled before I got a clue about how the byzantine course registration system operated. The default course left me a little cold, but as a budding fiction writer, I wanted to get an early start on my all‑important Literature Degree, so I took what I could get.
The class started out entertainingly enough with the professor leading us in an analysis of several bawdy medieval limericks. But after cranking out several well‑thought‑out term papers on more complex works and being rewarded with several D's and F's, I soon realized that my evaluator didn't give a pounding butter churn about what I honestly thought the authors were trying to convey. Being a dirty old Freudian, he wanted smut. Being dependent on federal grants that were collectable for a maximum of 4 years (those days are gone forever!), I soon realized I'd better give the guy what he wanted or risk remedial education I couldn't underwrite. So for my next term paper topic, I selected the sweetest little sonnet I could find—and proceeded to read as much raw, unbridled lust into it as humanly possible. By the time I finished analyzing that dewey violet straining to grow uphill, it had been transformed into a gushing priapus of epic proportions.
Although driven to this new tactic by desperation, I doubted whether the professor would fall for it. I even worried he'd interpret my effort as a sarcastic slight against his analytical proclivities. Not to worry: he not only took the bait, he relished it. I got my first A, and from then on even my most lukewarm efforts were graded kindly. What's more, I had learned my most important higher‑education lesson: screw intellectual honesty! If you want to bag your degree before you're 30, figure out what the professor wants and then give it to him—preferably on a silver platter.
Distorting the classics in the funhouse mirror of academic criticism took all the fun out of studying them. So, having learned it's better to join a Freudian than fight him, I decided to skip the literature major in favor of psychology. This was a particularly easy choice when, watching me agonize over my decision, my advisor impatiently assured me that “It doesn't matter what you major in; it'll probably have nothing whatsoever to do with what you do after you graduate.” Fortunately, my advisor's failure to help me hash out a study plan relevant to my needs, circumstances, and goals would be offset by a physiological psychology professor's desire to make the college look good by pushing his students into research.
As a psych major, I thoroughly enjoyed being able to read deep‑seated pathology into every last eyebrow twitch of my fellow classmates (particularly the really snobby ones), but I was dismayed by the contentious subjectivity of it all. For every purportedly comprehensive theory, there seemed to be an equal and opposite competing theory [see Confessions of An Atheist Priest]. In contrast, biology had an appealing objectivity. As a result, I was blown away by my first course in physiological psychology, taught by a charismatic, encouraging professor who prided himself on seeding future research mavens with every cross‑campus stroll.
When Professor Oppenheim accepted me into his senior seminar and lab practicum, I was thrilled beyond words. Soon he was encouraging me to look into graduate programs and voicing his concern that the word “social” was appearing much too frequently in the titles of my senior course selections.
One such selection was a senior seminar in social and political philosophy taught by a macho aficionado of the cult of the strenuous intellect. He employed something he called the “pseudo‑Socratic method,” a teaching technique based heavily on public humiliation. Whenever a student expressed even the most tentative opinion, Professor Schuldenliess would verbally beat her down so hard that she'd become a petrified mute and accept everything he said as Gospel. Although this experience did little to boost my self‑confidence as I gingerly prepared to face the “real world,” it did provide me with an invaluable lesson in the true nature of the participatory classroom. Unfortunately, Professor Schuldenliess never did get a clue as to why class participation fell off so abruptly so soon after the semester began, leaving him to pretty much carry the discussion himself. Thankfully, his constant carping about over‑paid administrators eventually earned him a sinecure far from the grubby realities of classroom teaching.
Meanwhile, back in the lab, my research efforts were coming to fruition just as grad school application deadlines began rearing their ugly heads. But the more absorbed I became in puzzling out the mysteries of sleep, the more my own sleep was disturbed by vivid nightmares in which my beloved professor had secretly recruited me into an experiment involving hefty injections of grotesque parasites.
Then too, I started having second and third thoughts about the value of our research, particularly considering the torment I was being asked to inflict on my scaly‑tailed friends in the lab. The human brain was a lot more complicated than I'd suspected after acing the introductory course, and I was beginning to wonder whether frying a rat's frontal lobes could realistically be expected to shed light on the subject. Plus I had a tendency to laugh hysterically while juicing the rats' electrodes, more out of nervous tension than sadistic joy—although I was beginning to wonder about the psychic calluses forming on my own mind.
On the train back to campus after vacation, I tried talking out my concerns with my lab partner: “Don't you worry that one day you might discover something really important about the brain that'll be used by some Orwellian government agency to really screw people up—and it'll be all your fault? Look at Einstein. All he wanted to do was understand how the universe worked, and they took what he learned and built the atomic bomb.” Wiggling his nose like one of our charges, my partner replied, “I don't have to get worked up about the ethics of stuff—I'm a pre‑med. And thanks a lot—you just made me miss my stop.”
I would not have to ponder such possibilities for long, as a dearth of funding put grad school quite out of my reach. As I began scanning the classifieds and grimly noting the rent I'd have to pay, the jobs I'd be qualified for, and the salary I'd earn, I soon realized I was facing a different nightmare altogether.
After spending a few months after graduation and my meager savings attempting to avoid the inevitable, I accepted a part‑time secretarial job in the P.R. office of my alma mater's nearby clone. You can imagine the enthusiasm with which I executed my duties considering the fine career opportunities I had to choose from after earning my precious degree. Twenty hours a week, $4.50 an hour, no benefits—and this was the pick of the litter. With such a windfall, I was able to move in with a maiden cousin who lived in a run‑down suburb near an abandoned quarry. Nothing like a college degree to set you up for life.
It soon hit me that there really was no socially meaningful and personally rewarding vocational slot out there for me, prestigious degree or no. Most of the employers I spoke to were mostly concerned with how fast I typed‑‑fortunately, pretty fast. Several years of odious editorial work interspersed with welcome stints of poorly subsidized unemployment got me a writing job in the P.R. office of a nearby mediocre university known for cooperative education. Along with a priestly salary in the high teens and full benefits, I could get myself a free night‑school graduate education as well. Since the rent had to be paid and nothing better presented itself, I took what I could get.
Although most of the job involved cranking out press releases on award‑winning buck‑toothed students for hometown newspapers, things occasionally got more interesting. Sometimes we got to write about faculty research. Making basic research on the sex life of some fungus sound like it holds the cure for cancer was challenging, particularly considering that because the faculty believed we flacks and our stupid projects were worthless, their cooperation was nil. However, they did find it worthwhile to fight tooth and nail against our attempts to make their research sound more relevant than it actually was.
For instance, after being assigned to write a university magazine article explaining how a senior faculty member's research was going to save us all from the greenhouse effect, I learned he didn't really believe the greenhouse effect posed much of a problem. Mercifully, the university ran out of publication money before my Sisyphean effort to reconcile these two facts could be stamped on glossy stock for posterity.
Reporting on a statistician's discovery of “an association in the female population between working and committing homicide” was another battle of the wills. “You're trying to make it sound like one causes the other. Correlation is not causation,” she chided. “I've got a crowbar in my car that'd argue otherwise,” I muttered through clenched teeth after leaving her office to start my umpteenth revision.
Of course, it wasn't always that hard to make the university's activities sound relevant. For instance, although I was a strong supporter of the nuclear freeze movement, I was asked to acclaim the honorary degree the university had awarded the nearby General Electric plant's president. This plant cranked out “reentry vehicles”—nuclear missile bodies—with the help of our many engineering graduates. (Those few graduates with enough social conscience to detest “defense” work complained bitterly about the lack of engineering jobs in non‑mayhem‑related fields.) Since I'd just been scolded for consistent lateness, I couldn't really decline the assignment, but my finished product was less than glowing.
Shortly thereafter, I was assigned to write about an alumnus who'd been recognized for “outstanding contributions to his field.” This field was logistics. Our department manager didn't know logistics from statistics, but he did know that former students getting national awards make the university look good. Unfortunately, one of our current students had just been arrested for trying to smuggle a respectable cache of weapons out of the country, creating considerable embarrassment for the university. After I pointed out that “logistics” is the science of weapons procurement and transport, and that publicizing such an award might further contribute to the university's new‑found reputation as a hot‑bed of bomb‑crazed nuts, our department head decided to bury the announcement on the last page of our most boring newsletter.
Such workaday distractions were counterbalanced by the nightly distractions of graduate school. Although some of the class work was worthwhile, most of it was a miniature version of what I was expected to do all day at the office and could practically do in my sleep (and often did). After realizing that the university's reputation for lameness might make my degree a feeble door‑opener, I decided to stop wasting my time. I quit to realize the “California Dream,” which I found much like the “American Dream,” only with earthquakes and higher taxes.
Of course my family did hint that life might not be all peaches and cream no matter how much education I got. My depression‑era father had always stressed that bank accounts and regular paychecks could evaporate at any time. An organic gardener before ecology made it big‑time, he stressed the importance of being as self‑sufficient as possible and showed me how to pick teaberries and snack on birch bark in the nearby woods. “You'll eat anything if you're hungry enough,” he explained.
After a lifetime of working with dynamite in all kinds of weather, Daddy was rewarded with a fatal heart attack before retirement ever came in sight. Development is now fast encroaching on our old foraging grounds, and even the deer are finding free goodies hard to come by. Today, after all those hours in the classroom, it's finally dawned on me that I let one major free goodie slip right by. I was slated to inherit Daddy's lakeside cabin when I turned 21, but owing to other people's greed and negligence and my own lack of resources and legal moxie, I have yet to obtain this crucial buffer between myself and complete dependence on a paycheck. “Pursuing Your Legal Rights” was one course I was never offered in school—and for that matter neither was “Coping with Your Leeching Landlord.”
After 16+ years of formal education, during which time I never set foot in a public school or cheated on a test, I am now conversant with the structure and function of DNA, the color theories of the Impressionists, Maslow's hierarchy of needs, and many other fascinating concepts I can entertain myself with while feeding the office xerox machine. I do not know how to build or maintain my own home, grow my own food, produce my own energy, or sew my own clothes—basic skills my grandparents took for granted. Everything I need to survive must be earned by suffering endless indignities in exchange for a paycheck that could be cut off at any moment. The job market and the system it feeds could care less about my well‑being, but without them, I'm a fish out of water. This is progress?
I recently found an interesting, worthwhile job doing medical library research for people with health problems. Unfortunately, it offered a skimpy wage and no benefits, and I couldn't accept having basic medical care remain just outside my do‑gooding reach. So now I'm earning a reasonable wage and full benefits by editing half‑assed medical articles for an odious HMO that jerks its patients around like a three‑year‑old with a new puppy on a short leash. Has my hyperliteracy finally paid off? Well, I now make the same damn yearly wage as an old college friend who managed to reach sophomore status before dropping out. By the way, this college friend happens to be male.
Be that as it may, by any stretch of the imagination I'd be considered middle class, so I guess my precious degree did vaunt me out of the socioeconomic lower depths. But working class or no, I'm still a working stiff. The basic intolerability and insecurity of this situation has convinced me there's gotta be a better way. As we go to press, I'm still working on it. If I manage to construct an escape hatch to the periphery of a system that's at best indifferent to our needs and desires and at worst death‑dealing, you'll be the first to know. In the meantime, I'll take what I can get, and get away with as much as I possibly can. At least I've learned to appreciate the limitations of a good education.