STRAW MEN ARE NOT ALWAYS USELESS

Posted in Rants on August 4th, 2009 by Ed

America's inboxes lit up on Monday with the tale of a young woman who is suing her alma mater for the cost of her tuition because she can't find a job – or so the forwarded emails claim. She is actually filing suit because she alleges that the school's placement office is treating her differently than other students, but regardless of how her situation is or is not misrepresented she is presented as one might suspend someone over a dunk tank and charge sunburnt and corn dog eating rubes a quarter to whip baseballs at the target. That is what the media do best: make Straw Man arguments based on isolated examples of complete idiots, often complete idiots filing frivilous lawsuits, so that lazy, entitled sacks of shit across the nation can let fly torrents of indignation. CNN's narrative barely disguises its contempt and suggestions about how we should feel:

As Thompson sees it, any reasonable employer would pounce on an applicant with her academic credentials, which include a 2.7 grade-point average and a solid attendance record. But Monroe's career-services department has put forth insufficient effort to help her secure employment, she claims.

This is the point at which we're supposed to get on our high horses and bloviate about laziness, hard work, personal responsibility, The Greatest Generation, and the Way Things Used to Be but no longer are. While the person in this isolated example does sound like somewhat of a knucklehead, this story is still instructive of a growing social problem: we are selling a lot of expensive college degrees to students who walk out the door and find that they aren't worth a whole lot.

How can $70,000 for a Bachelor's from for-profit "Monroe College" be considered anything but a con? Plenty of students are leaving "good" schools and entering the bottom rung of the economy doing jobs which barely require a high school diploma. What a recent bestseller labelled The Quarterlife Crisis is transitioning from a personal issue to a social phenomenon. We're at risk for developing a sizeable generation of young people whose cynicism, social isolation, and sense of futility will make the much-publicized Generation X from the early 90s look like Up With People. The idea of having the kind of careers that previous generations enjoyed – stability, promotion, and retirement on pension – disappeared decades ago when our Baby Boomer parents sold it to Mexico and China hoping to cash out with their 401(k)s. Now the idea of finding any employment at all to justify the cost of higher education is starting to slip away.

I can hardly blame recent college graduates for adopting the overwhelmingly disinterested, what-difference-does-it-make-anyway attitude. How long can you be unemployed or working a minimum wage, no-benefit job with 50, 70, or 100 grand in college debt? How many people can graduate and celebrate the passage into adulthood by moving back in with mom and dad before they give up altogether? For how long can we perpetuate the idea that education is the cure-all for these economic trainwrecks without tangible evidence that it's worth it? This news-of-the-weird item might prove that suing universities is not the answer, but it also raises the question of whether attending them is any more productive.