Monday, June 29, 2009



We learn that education is a good thing. When we are young, we learn that the good students get into good schools, and that students at good schools get into good graduate schools. Then the good students at the good graduate schools get really good jobs, and they make lots of money. In sum, we absorb a distinctive mythology about education; education tantalizes us into believing that diligent study, good grades and academic achievement translate immediately into “worldly success.”

“Real life” teaches a very different lesson. I always put the phrase “Real Life” in quotation marks because so many people do not understand that it does not reflect an “absolute” or a “norm.” Rather, the words merely describe cruel commerce and all the ruthless human behavior that accompanies it. Still, people who use the term “real life” generally do so in order to scare some dreamer away from “unimportant” pursuits and to focus on what will “make money.” If he doesn’t, after all, he will “not succeed” and go homeless. In commerce, results matter. It doesn’t matter how you get results; you just need to get them without getting caught breaking the law. A guy with $4,000,000 in the bank got results, ethics or no ethics. But an ethical guy with $600 did not get results. What good did ethics do him in “real life?”

But dreamers aren’t the only ones who can’t cope with “real life.” Intelligence and academic success don’t matter, either. In some sense, dreamers court disaster because they should know that commerce doesn’t care about individual expression unless it makes money. But what about everyone who studies hard in school, tries to get good grades and values knowledge? They face the same risks as the dreamer. This is the tragedy of education: It does not prepare students for commerce. In fact, if people prize educational values too much, they will probably fail in commerce.

Still, education is a step along the “traditional life path” leading to “success.” Every “successful” person spent some time in school, somewhere. Some were good students. Others weren’t. No matter a student’s ability, every student hears rhetoric about academic success. They compete with one another to get better grades than their friends. They struggle to outdo one another for accolades and recognition. They proudly advertise their grade point averages next to their names in the belief that a higher number indicates greater intelligence and a better chance at employment. Education, then, becomes an instrument to win employment. While some students truly relish the opportunity to learn, most are satisfied simply to get degrees that enable them to compete for jobs. In other words, wide-ranging knowledge is simply a forgettable means to win some boring, compensated post at a private firm.

In this sense, a mythology develops around education. Students think that smart people get good grades, and good grades grant instant access to the “best jobs.” “Best jobs” mean jobs that pay the most, not the jobs that are most intellectually rewarding or noble. But this is all a myth. Jobs do not depend on intelligence. True, students with good grades have something to flaunt at interviews. Yet no one gets a “job” simply because they are smart. Rather, jobs are private contractual relationships between “employers” and “employees.” Unlike education, employment cares not for enrichment, intellectual broadening or self-expression. Instead, it is concerned with the small-minded advancement of the employer’s financial mission. Students learn to address many issues from many perspectives. By contrast, employees are expected to address one issue from one perspective—all the time. In this light, it is easy to see why truly passionate students could have a hard time coping with “a job.” Jobs, as commercial relationships, are narrowing. Employees are instruments to the employer’s gain. The employer gains nothing from rumination. He gains only from purposeful, targeted activity. Thus, “educational values” differ profoundly from “commercial values.” For years, students learn that their individual ideas and impressions matter. Employees quickly learn that they do not. In fact, they may even be censured for exploring their own ideas. In short, the sole question in employment is: “How does this activity economically benefit the employer?” This unabashed instrumentalism is hard for intelligent people to swallow.

But there are other, less abstract barriers to success in employment. Employment represents a private, contractual relationship. As such, market rules dictate whether there are enough employers to offer work to hopeful employees. After all, employees are a substantial expense. Employers must set aside money for wages, offices, health insurance, payroll taxes, food, and myriad other incidentals associated with keeping a human being working on their land. During profitable times, employers have extra money to hire more people to do their bidding. During leaner times, employers do not have enough money to hire. During losing times, employers must cut existing employees in order to maintain any profit at all. These natural “boom and bust” periods in commerce play a large role in whether employees find jobs. It does not matter how smart, zealous or motivated a student may be. If times are tough, no one gets a job. In fact, people are just happy not to lose their jobs. For those who don’t have a job yet, it’s tough luck time, valedictorians included.

Employment, then, is a matter of both grace and luck. Grace plays a role to the extent that the employer—as the economically dominant party—agrees to allow an employee to serve him for “compensation.” Grace is not objective; employers hire people they like. There is no magical checklist that automatically entitles a hopeful applicant to a job. Luck plays a role to the extent that economic times must be sufficiently robust to allow the employer to spend money on new servants. Contrary to university rhetoric, no academic wizardry can influence these factors. In commerce, bottom lines dictate who gets hired. If there is not enough money to hire, no one gets hired. It’s that simple. It doesn’t matter if Leonardo da Vinci applies; if the company can’t afford to hire anyone, it won’t. Intelligence and merit have nothing to do with it.

This is a jarring truth for students who spend their whole lives studying in the expectation that their academic toils will yield a reward some day. It is even more jarring for students who take their education further than others. Professional schools, for example, advertise their “graduate employment rates” all the time. In recent years, college degrees have increasingly proven insufficient for “really good jobs.” Recent graduates experience this trend when they try unsuccessfully to land even entry-level positions after college. In order to increase their chances to obtain “high-paying jobs” after college, they decide to go to school again, this time to be doctors, lawyers, accountants or even social workers. In so doing, they immerse themselves in an education more rigorous than anything they have ever encountered. They mercilessly compete with one another for grades, knowing that employers do not even interview candidates who fall below a certain threshold. They put themselves through anxiety, stress and personal turmoil to get the degree. After so much work, they expect some results. At this stage, they really could care less about what they study; they simply want a comfortable job after enduring so much academic hazing.

But a professional degree is no automatic ticket to employment, either. Just because a student gets a law degree does not change the commercial dynamic that drives employment markets. Private firms either have extra money to hire or they don’t. A student’s miraculous academic success at law school will not guarantee him a job at a super firm if the firm does not have a healthy profit margin. In this sense, a professional education is no entitlement. It may be grueling and unforgiving, but a student’s academic tribulations do not magically open employment doors. Only grace and luck can do that.

This is tragic. I know from experience that professional school is not pleasant. In fact, it is anxiety-ridden, exhausting and mentally debilitating. School demands so much energy that students must forgo virtually everything else in their lives to keep up. It can ruin relationships, destroy finances and impact health. It seems to go on forever and impose a new reality on students. They must either give themselves fully to the discipline or risk failure. It teaches exacting attention to subtle details and self-excoriation for failing to notice them. Finally—and ironically—many students go into unsalvageable debt to finance this harrowing “learning experience.”

After all this trauma and sacrifice, it is no wonder that professional school students expect a reward at the end. But they don’t get it. Rather, they get a chance to win a reward. Moreover, because employment moves in cycles, it is really a long shot. There are so many things that can prevent a professional student from getting a job. There are no guarantees. In fact, there are a million uncontrollable contingencies that can derail a student’s hopes. A student may get fantastic grades, but lose out on a job because he wore a bad belt to the interview, and the interviewer put special (and unexplainable) emphasis on belt choice. A male student may be a close runner-up for a job, but lose out because the firm wants to hire a woman, not a man. Another student may have conveyed a nervous impression or have been sick on interview day, dashing his chances. Still another may be number one in his class, but really anger the interviewer because the interviewer has a deep-seated resentment toward overachievers. And some other student may send out hundreds of resumes and receive no response from anyone, ever. Worse, there are pernicious, unfair factors at work, too. Some employers may only want to hire students from certain “prestigious” schools. Others may ignore everyone in order to make room for a friend or relative. Still others may only want to hire women they find sexually attractive. Lastly, there is always the “boom and bust” cycle in commerce. When times are tight, no one gets a job, no matter how brilliant they are. In short, only grace and luck lead to employment. Intelligence and sacrifice entitle students to nothing.

Getting a “good job” is a long shot. Despite popular academic rhetoric, diligent study, intellectual curiosity and school success do not magically lead to employment. In fact, educational values have little to do with employment. It is tragic when superb students with real academic promise cannot find suitable jobs.

But there is a way to escape this tragedy. I, for one, do not regret that I obtained a professional education. I saw that employment had little to do with the educational values I cultivated as a student. I did not sacrifice my passion for learning by playing the employment game. Rather, I went to work for myself. By refusing to participate in the “employment game,” I preserved myself from the psychic agony and perpetual disappointment that stem from the employment relationship. It is a more difficult road in the sense that I must find other ways to make money. But what I lose in stability I make up for in happiness. I know that winning employment is arbitrary, and that employers are capricious. Furthermore, I know that getting a job is hardly a “reward;” rather, I view it as a form of surrender. I do not like servility. No matter how “good” the job, employment is a species of servility. Employees are servants. They are conceptually weak and fawning. I do not like being a weak concept. If employers have the power to extend grace, I escape potential disappointment by refusing to even petition them.

Yet I pity all the hopeful students who think their academic effort will lead them to success in private employment. They will soon see that commerce plays by different rules; no one is entitled to anything, unless, of course, they are related to someone in power. Relationships and connections are always better than merit and intelligence. That’s “real life” for you.

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