Wednesday, June 22, 2016

The Placebo of Education

Whenever I see an article about minimum wage on Facebook, there are always comments by those sneering jerks who say, “Well you shoulda got an education like me!” (Maybe 50% of the time they actually have all the spelling and grammar right.) It reminds me of the old Bruce Hornsby & the Range song “The Way It Is” with the lyrics:
Standing in line, marking time
Waiting for the welfare dime
'Cause they can't buy a job
The man in the silk suit hurries by
As he catches the poor old lady's eyes
Just for fun he says, "Get a job."
But over and over again I see “education” as the solution to the problem. Except getting an education and making it pay off is not as easy as people like to make it sound. Thanks to Republicans student loans are as cumbersome and punitive as payday loans anymore. Especially if you’re going into a field like medicine or law that requires post-graduate study and you don’t want to go to some Division II school like this guy. (Cardinal Pride! Woo!) I got lucky and went to a smaller school and between financial aid, scholarships, grants, and a part-time job I cobbled together enough money not to need a student loan until my final year when a couple of the grants ran out. Even then I think it was only $1700 or so. I think I paid it off about 2005 or maybe sooner so it wasn’t a huge burden like for a lot of people. Of course that was from 1996-2000 and tuition even at schools like SVSU has gone up exponentially since then.

(I think it was Real Sports on HBO that had a story on how much schools like Rutgers and Eastern Michigan throw away on subpar sports programs—mostly football—and to make up for it jack up tuition on students. At Eastern Michigan—just down the road from the University of Michigan—some students were sleeping on couches in lounge areas because they couldn’t afford housing. Meanwhile in states with conservative Republican legislatures they keep cutting back how much states give to public universities.)

So yeah, going to college is pretty much a shitshow anymore. If you have small children, better hope they’re really good at a sport so they can get scholarships. There’s no way you’re going to pay for it yourself, especially if you’re making $7.25 an hour, which has been the minimum wage for about a decade now despite how much prices have gone up on just about everything since then.

OK so paying for college is hard for most everyone. But isn’t it worth it? Maybe. The thing people commenting on Facebook ASSume is that getting an education instantly means you’ll be getting a good job. Hahaha! If only! I mean come on I have a Bachelor’s degree (magna cum laude even) and almost 20 years of experience and it took me pretty much 18 months to find a job for about half what I used to make. Along the way I tried working fast food for $8.15/hour but really couldn’t take the physical strain on my old, fat, diabetic body. (To which conservative commenters would say, “You shouldn’t be fat and diabetic then!”)

In my roughly 8-day stint in the fast food industry, you know how much I made? Less than $500. And a lot of that money went to buying slip-free shoes and black pants to go with the uniform shirt. If you start doing the math, can you really live on about $1200 a month? Maybe if it’s just you and you don’t have a car payment or student loans.

A scenario I brought up: what if you’re one of those middle-aged people who gets laid off from a factory like one of those Ford, GM, or Chrysler plants that went to China or Mexico? You have a spouse, kids, car insurance, health insurance, car payments, and a mortgage. Your $30/hour job with full benefits used to take care of all that but now until you can get that fabled college degree you’re supposed to make do with $7.25 an hour? And from experience I know places like McDonald’s or Wal-Mart can be pretty draconian with the scheduling. For instance at Target if you apply for a stock room job you have to available Sundays and you have to be able to start as early as 4am!

So probably the best thing would be an online program. Still there are costs for that and minimum wage—or even $8.15—isn’t going to cut it. Well just work 2 or 3 jobs! The conservative geniuses say. Have your wife or husband work a few jobs too! And maybe the kids can set up a lemonade stand.

But even if you get that degree after two years at a minimum, now you’ve got to start applying for jobs. You send in your resume and HR people see you’ve got 20 years of experience as a lathe operator or whatever but absolutely none as an IT professional. The Catch-22 when you graduate is employers want years of experience but how do you get experience if no one will hire you because you don’t have experience? It’s probably even harder when you go in for the interview and you’re 45 and the other candidates are 25 because the expectation will be that if you’re older you’ll want more money and benefits than a kid fresh out of college. And while you’re pounding the pavement looking for a “good” entry-level job, you still have all those bills to pay.

Let’s face it, everything is working against you, which is why “Get an education!” sounds like a good answer but like most simple answers it’s not always that practical.

Bringing it back to writing, my nemesis Jay Greenstein loves talking about education. He used to say I “hate education” until the fourth or fifth time I reminded him I have a Bachelor’s Degree—magna cum laude, bitches! Still, his standard “review” is to tell everyone they need education on writing because what they learned in school doesn’t cut it.

Whenever we argue about anything he inevitably says, “Well you can’t sell anything to publishers…” Always forgetting that A) I did sell something to a publisher (And Neil Vogler sold something else that I contributed to) and B) His only sale was to some crappy little outfit that went out of business about a year later and C) His self-published stuff hardly sells anything at all.

It never penetrates his thick skull that if education (especially the teachings of Dwight Swain) is all you need, shouldn’t he be a successful author? Except that obviously education is not all you need. Not to say that I “hate education” because it is helpful to be able to form coherent sentences. It’s just that education is far from the ONLY thing you need, just as education is hardly the ONLY thing you need to get a decent job. A lot of it in writing and job hunting comes down to good ol’ fashioned luck. Being in the right place at the right time. If the query you spent days writing and editing gets read when the agent’s minion was a half-hour late for work and spilled coffee all over herself, she’s probably not going to be as into your story than if she’s having a good day. That’s just human nature. Or maybe she’s reading the query on your zombie story just after they already selected another zombie story and thus they don’t want two.

Unlike what people like Greenstein say, it’s not all about technique. If it were, a lot of shitty writers wouldn’t be published. He’d say I think I know more than published writers—you’re damned right! Not the really good, Pulitzer Prize-winning ones, but someone like EL James? Some celebrity who decides one day she wants to be a novelist? Yeah, I think I know more than them. But that doesn’t matter when you get name recognition or good publicity on your side.

Author Lawrence Block pretty much said the same thing on his blog:
There’s no guarantee that any of us can do that. There are schools you can go to in order to learn a trade, and when you’re done you’re likely to qualify for a job in that field. It doesn’t work that way in the arts. You can take every writing course you can find, you can earn an MFA and hang the diploma on your wall, and you may never write a page that anyone will read with pleasure. This, alas, is the risk we all run.
And he's been selling stories since the late 50s, so he knows what he's talking about.

So really, let’s stop looking at this like it’s black-and-white because it’s obviously not.


  1. The biggest problem has always been getting the experience to go with the degree. Then you have colleges that make you take things you don't really need. I remember having to take gym in college, and that hasn't changed. They say these extra classes are part of having a well rounded education, but yeah, it makes them more money too. Now a career college won't make you do Baker for example. Anyway, I think it's important to go into something that's in demand. Like I.T. for example, but even then it's still the experience factor that is difficult.

  2. Great article Pat! And I can totally relate to that, I remember how hard it was to find a job after I finished college. And I've been unemployed for over a year.

    Fortunately, after such a bad experience, one of my teachers convinced me to apply for scholarships. And guess what? I did get a scholarship for the masters program in the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee, so I'll be relocating to the midwest exactly in two months. I'm really looking forward to it.



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