STRAW MEN ARE NOT ALWAYS USELESS

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.

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16 Responses to “STRAW MEN ARE NOT ALWAYS USELESS”

  1. J. Dryden Says:

    As a college-level educator, let me just say: Oh My God, Ed, shut the fucking fuck up before you cost us our fucking jobs!

    As a human being, let me say that yeah, you're right, and most of my students so completely and utterly don't need what I'm selling, at least *economically*–that is, they all sure as shit need what I'm selling in terms of learning how to conduct themselves intellectually (and frankly, interpersonally)–but isn't the problem one of marketing? That is, are we selling a fundamentally decent product to customers who think they're getting something else, and feel cheated as a result, even though intellectually, personally, they're probably better off? Casuist hucksterism aside, of course.

  2. Daniel Says:

    When my grandfather retired from Honeywell in Albany, New York they threw a retirement party for him. This was what the party entailed: dinner at a fine restaurant, him being driven via car INTO the fucking restaurant, and a motherfucking cake. I don't know how they managed the car being driven into the restaurant, but do people get retirement parties like this anymore? And no, he wasn't a big wig ceo or exec.

    The point is that hardly anyone from my generation of young twentysomethings are going to have these 25-30 year careers waiting for them after college. They may plow through 7 or 8 jobs before it's all said and done. It provides for fresh experiences but it also serves as a detriment. A lot of the times they won't have a choice in the manner and will be laid off. There seems to be a general lack of camarderie in the modern work-force. We are not going to have the benefit of knowing a likable employee for 10 years. People will move on or people will be moved along. Take it for what it is, but our generation will feel the full effects of this rat race.

  3. Misterben Says:

    I believe a large part of the problem is the extent to which "something for nothing" has become part of the "American Dream". A lot of us don't actually want to work for a living anymore; we want to get rich and get the hell out. But even if the kind of "lifetime employment" available to the Greatest Generation was available to the generation leaving college now, I doubt it would actually appeal to them: those jobs offered stability and security, not fabulous wealth or internet fame.

    Of course, it is also worth noting that even the simple security of "Greatest Generation"-style jobs is no longer available. I'm 32, and my resume is 12 pages long thanks to all the jobs I've had since college. (At the interview for my current job, the boss squinted at my resume and asked why I had such a complicated work history, implying I was unreliable or something. I bit my tongue, but I really wanted to point out that it was people like him who kept turnover high to keep costs down by forever replacing veteran, high-paid employees with new, cheap ones.)

    My point is this: not only is a college diploma not a guarantee of high-paid white-collar employment, there is currently no guarantee at all that any of us are entitled to be entertainment lawyers, fashion journalists, image consultants, loan officers, or any of a thousand other non-jobs. We're past that point of ridiculous luxury and unreality in this country. It's time to get serious again.

  4. Patti Says:

    How the hell in this day of grade inflation could you think that a 2.7 is a remotely competant GPA? Most employers set the bar at a 3.0, and that's for real colleges at times when jobs are actually available. I forsee a large number of angry, stupid students threatening to sue us now.

    Not only is a college diploma not a guarantee of a high-paying job, it also is not a guarantee that the holder actually learned something.

  5. Amanda Says:

    In K-12 public schools teachers are told to sacrifice everything for their students and often do by working/tutoring/grading until 7pm when they are contracted until 3, allowing parents access to their personal cell and home numbers along with their e-mail addresses, getting to school to get work done at 5am when they aren't required to be there until 7:30…all supposedly for the benefit of the students or to improve the experience and education of the students. All this is done on crappy salaries and often at the expense of their personal or family lives, and often many of these teachers are fired anyway due to lack of students or funding.

    While I recognize that colleges and universities are out there to make money, and that none of the PhDs would want to lose their jobs and can control that situation much better than public school teachers can, I think there is a level of responsibility involved on the part of the department at the university when, through high school and collegiate advising, we encourage a student to pursue a degree that they may enjoy but will never be able to use in this economy/job market/whatever other situation. Whether out for tuition dollars or not, universities are still in it for the students, and if the students aren't happy (or the university can't put out percentages claiming that a large portion of their students are placed in degree specific jobs) it's bad for business…or at least it will become that way (I hope?).

    The BF's 'rents think that the responsibility is all on the student to figure it out before they even choose a degree. After experiencing undergrads at my current institution I don't think they can even figure out what skirt/cologne to put on tomorrow let alone whether the economic environment is currently favorable for their chosen field (and 95% of them probably could not spell economic, environment, or favorable without word spell check).

    I see this as a possible situation in which kids with no other future but to be plumbers/electricians/waitresses/etc (which are decent jobs if you don't have $100,000 of debt!!!) are forced into college by the prevailing beliefs of our society (education =better life) and end up as average students (i.e. 2.7 GPA) who can't compete with the higher achievers for the "information technology" jobs. Then they end up being plumbers anyway, just with $70,000 in debt and a lot of bitterness towards the people who told them they could "make it" with a college degree. While I am also in training to become a college professor, I am of the opinion that perhaps we should be a little less worried about the jobs of our professors and more worried about the financial future of the next generation.

  6. Grumpygradstudent Says:

    I agree with J. Dryden. The intention of undergraduate education has always been first and foremost to expand the student's mind, and in that endeavor, it still does pretty well. The problem is that the entire society has perpetuated the idea that undergraduate education is designed to get the student a better job through some combination of credentialing and skill acquisition. In that endeavor, it used to do pretty well, but now does fairly poorly. So, yes, the con is basically a bait and switch….kids are trying to "buy" a job (in addition to 4 years of experimentation in the use of controlled substances), and they eventually find out that they got an education instead. Which is worth something, but probably not 70k in debt, when most of the time in an institution that disparages teaching as an annoying side chore, the student could have learned just as much or more by simply reading a book.

    Now, whenever I talk to beginning undergrads, I tell them to major in whatever they want, but to make sure they acquire skills (languages, computers, carpentry, math, whatever). Having the degree matters as a credential, but having skills and work experience is much more important for job hunting. I WISH I could be a plumber. After 7 years of higher education, the only real skill I've acquired is being able to write minimally well….which basically qualifies me to sit at a cubicle and stay at a computer all day. I'd much rather be building a house or fixing a car or plumbing or doing something involving physical effort and the production of a concrete product. I think society is slowly realizing that that type of work is much better for the soul than sitting on your ass wearing a cheap tie. But I bought the lie that smart kids are supposed to go to college and only dumb kids learn a trade!! Turns out, I'm the idiot.

  7. jazzbumpa Says:

    Grumpy -
    Hate to rain on your skilled trades parade, but things are no better in that realm. My neighbor is a plumber who owns a family business, and business is not good. I drove past a recently closed auto dealership the other day, and there was a sign in the window, saying the mechanics' tools were on sale.

    Mrben -
    I think your basic premise is whacked. The idea that one generation is "greatest" and another is lazy is mythical nonsense. Sure there are lazy people, greedy people, those who want a quick buck. As that great philosopher David Byrne said, "Same as it ever was."

    These are hard times for almost everyone. What's been gong on for decades is the fruits of productivity improvement have flowed to the already wealthy, while people who do actual work have seen their standards of living deteriorate. The excesses of Wall Street are a symptom, as well as an enabling mechanism. Welcome to 1930.

    JzB the pessimistic trombonist

  8. Patti Says:

    If you really want to weep for the future, take a look at the original court filing:
    http://i.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2009/images/08/03/thompson.pdf

    How this person managed a 2.7 while thinking that the answer to 70,000 + 2,000 = 75,000 is beyond me. I hope she does get her "reinbursment of tutision" because she never should have been granted a diploma.

  9. Kulani Says:

    I agree with Patti. This woman is wondering why employers are not jumping all over her 2.7 GPA. That is a C to C+ average, depending on your school. That is, by definition, not impressive.

  10. BillCinSD Says:

    I pretty much agree with grumpy, with the caveat that as a college educator, there is a fair amount of pressure to think of the students as customers not students and to run the state college like a business, which is anther consequence of the business/anti-state propaganda most everyone is bombarded with daily.

  11. Matthew Says:

    I love the variety of responses to this post. It's definitely on a subject that provokes a lot of "I know that you're talking about subject A, but I really think the most important thing about this story is subject B, so I'm going to talk about that" responses.

    Not that there's anything wrong with that! It's just interesting. And my meta-post is the least on topic of all, so who am I to talk?

  12. cyntax Says:

    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?

    Well, I don't really agree with the claim that there's no tangible evidence, but one thing I would say is that there aren't consistent results that would support education being held up as a universal solution to economic inequities. In part that's got to be because there are so many variables that affect education outcomes beyond what happens on campus and in the classroom.

    Also, what we expect education to do and whom we expect it do it for have been changing. College education used to be for white, upper class males who were going into the clergy, the law, or government. Then it became about upper middle class males that were going into the same roles but also into business. Now it purports to serve men and women of various socio-economic backgrounds while much the collegiate pedagogy and curriculum has had little structural change from its original inception.

    But none of that is to say it's worthless, it just badly needs to evolve.

  13. Chris Says:

    Incredible post about higher education and its relationship to the economy. I also appreciate your honesty as somebody who is a member of higher education (although I don't think you've ever held back before).

    Going to college is kind of like going to California in Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath. I will say that going to college was a more enjoyable ride than the old jalopy the Joad's took. At least you don't have to worry about the horseshit economy for 4 years, humanity is embraced, one can learn a hell of a lot, and a good college town is a great place to be. The end result is kind of ironic: everybody else benefits economically but the student, like landlords, professors, local businesses, bookstores, etc., and the student leaves town with tens of thousands of dollars of debt! People are faced with a really scary question now: if there are no good blue collar jobs left and college doesn't guarantee employment, what do we do now?

    College is a great experience. However, there should be more of an effort by colleges to clarify the myth between college and the economy, and it should be cheaper if the graduate isn't gaining any economic advantage (especially for public institutions).

  14. Craig Says:

    I'm really torn as I read your post. On the one hand, yeah, that young lady was just a dopey mark and the college and the banks were dealing three-card monty. On the other–well, what the hell? No one in this country needs to take on 70,000 dollars of debt to get a Bachelor's degree from a decent school. No one. I went to a state school and worked, and went into the professional world with a Computer Science degree and less than 10 grand in debt. I suppose I could have gotten out with no debt, except I wanted time to do some theater and radio.

    I got in to an expensive school Up North, but I did the math that Summer, and realized that I just couldn't justify borrowing 80 thousand for my degree–even a very marketable degree like C.S. I was very sad for a while, and probably indulged in resenting my parents for not being filthy rich, jacked-up little jerk that I was. Then I wiped my eyes, drove to Georgia Tech, and, you know, life turned out O.K. I didn't get to study Anthropology at Harvard, but most of us aren't really born with that option.

    Also, as a Gen Xer, I never really saw us as such disaffected bums. Streetwise and a little cynical, maybe. We were mostly just sick and tired of hearing about how awesome the Baby Boomers were. Still are.

  15. Kevin S. Taylor Says:

    Perhaps, school made this lady a bit brighter. After all, she did decide that 70K was too much for an undergraduate degree. I went to a private school through graduate level and earned an MBA for less than that. The caveat is that I have no interest in 'seeking a job.' Never have! I am proud to own my own company and have many employees depend on me. I went to school and got my degree based on the chance that I may actually learn something … many years after I had started my first company.

    I do not think this lawsuit has anything to do with the school or the generation. It is the overall feeling of entitlement that the lady needs to deal with. Her $70K would have been better off spent on a shrink. Certainly, a perfect study for the school's sociology department.

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