The Rubber-Tree League

Hogwarts_at_Wizarding_WorldOccasionally I’ll get a call from my Alumni Association. Some peppy volunteer is on the line, asking if I want to share some of my wealth in gratitude to my Alma Mater. Ironically, these calls always come when I have no job. When I explain, the girl expresses her understanding and, it seems, a little bit of guilt, as if she understands it’s her fault, and the University’s, for giving me a useless degree in something like English, and they all feel bad about it now, the big mistake.

I’ve gotten plenty of jobs, of course, as a teacher and an office drone, but never when the Alumni Association calls. I like to think it’s the same girl (Karen, I call her) and Karen has been calling me randomly for the past 5 years, rooting for me to finally land a gig somewhere, but I never do. Karen thinks I live under a bridge somewhere and marvels at my upbeat attitude, an inspiration to all of them at Alumni Call Center, constantly being denied, perhaps berated. “Stiff upper lip,” Karen tells her compatriots. “We may not get donations, but I just spoke to Jeshua again, and I’m sure he’s drinking ditchwater.” “That poor son of a bitch.”

It always interests me when people deny the value of education. Newsweek ran a big cover article “Is College A Lousy Investment?” last year, Time magazine ran “Is College Worth It?” a few months ago, and there’s been a lot of buzz and punditry about wastes of time and money. I can guarantee you, though, all those pundits and journalists have a college degree. That’s how come their job is to be journalists or pundits. Ask them if they’d rip their credentials up to confetti in exchange for the original cost of their tuition. I’m sure a TV producer would pay for it. That’d be fun to watch.

In monetary terms, anyone who knows anything knows America is moving more and more into a globalized mindset, and American jobs are moving away from production or labor into service-based. Which means a good job in America is a job about ideas, information, and doing something for somebody. Building at the widget factory and toiling at the mine are being done in China and Taiwan now. In “The Smartest Kids In The World,” the book on global education I reviewed last week, even factory owners are saying it’s hard for them to find qualified employees because even production jobs now require a knowledge of higher order math and science, problem solving and critical thinking.

Besides that, do a Google search on average lifetime earnings based on your level of education, and then a Google search on unemployment rates based on your level of education, and you have to be an idiot or a conniving Mephistopholes-like gremlin who laughs at the ruined lives of others to ever tell somebody education is a waste.

There is something important you should know, though. Apparently, when it comes to getting your education, who you are and how hard you’re willing to work makes a bigger difference than where you go. This is fantastic. U.S. News and World Report came out with its college rankings yesterday, once again putting the big Ivy League names at the top, but Malcolm Gladwell wrote in the New Yorker two years ago about why these rankings are all bunk. CBS News even posted a blog yesterday about how college rankings hurt students.

See, educational research from as much as 10 years ago, spread in articles from magazines like Atlantic Monthly, show that it’s all about how dedicated and committed and hard-working and ambitious and creative you are. People at the same level of those positive qualities who went to places like Tulane ended up just as successful – in money and in reported happiness and so on – as people who went to Harvard. So fuck Harvard, apparently (Okay, not really. I have a cousin going to Harvard who I’m extremely proud of from afar, but I’m proud because of how intelligent and hardworking he must be, which is the point). As long as you’re awesome, all that matters is you go somewhere. And keep being awesome.

Ambition is what a lot of things are about. I don’t mean necessarily businessman-close-the-deal-rise-to-CEO-get-fat-stacks ambition. I don’t make friends with those people very well (and they certainly don’t care about me). Your ambition could be to write 10 poems by the end of the month. Your ambition could be to balance your work-life ratio so you can attend your kid’s baseball games. Your ambition could be to volunteer across New York, like my friend Jeff is doing. Just the fact that you want to do something, and keep at it even when it’s hard, makes you one of those people who succeed. (See this NPR article for what a huge, world-altering difference being taught perseverance makes in education).

This is as opposed to people with a take-anything, whatevz attitude who smoke pot and play video games all day, or lie on the couch and watch TV until it’s time to go to work again. Don’t get me wrong, if you are at a place in your life where you are happy inside with who you are and where you are, by all means, you should of course chill, enjoy it. But whenever I see these whatevz-people, they are miserable. I think there’s a connection.

It’s great to realize, especially when fake college rankings come out, or when college asks for donations from your unemployed ass, that success is not something you get from rich privilege, or have handed to you. Success really is about hard work and goals and perseverance and ambition, whether your desired success is in career or relationships or what have you. You don’t have to go to the Ivy League. You just can’t stay here.

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