Just because I’ve been stupid doesn’t mean you should too: responses to the school and jobs post

In response to “Employment, attitude, and educational entitlement,” a couple friends noted my own experience in higher education and asked if I was being a hypocrite by telling people to do as I say not as I do. But I would phrase it differently by saying that going to grad school was a stupid thing to do, and an important component of intellectual honesty is admitting when we do something stupid.

When I make a mistake, I admit it and encourage others not to make the same one. What do you do?*

In addition, although it’s true that I’ve been in various pouches of academia, I’ve also been working continuously as a grant writer (If not for that, I doubt I would’ve majored in English in the first place: I like to read and write but am aware of the job situation). When I began English grad school, I thought I’d be able to conventionally publish a novel by the time I was done. This has turned out not to be true. For me, that’s annoying but not a crisis. For many of my peers, however, it is a crisis.

English grad school is also somewhat less pernicious than some professional grad schools. In English, they pay you (a small amount, to be sure), instead of you paying them, which means it’s relatively easy to walk away—much easier than law, business, or medicine. It’s becoming apparent to those of us who pay attention to higher education that higher education institutions have an increasingly predatory relationship with those they are educating. Or nominally educating.

There’s also a “follow-the-money” element to the higher education problem. School can go on pretty much forever when you are paying them. Not surprisingly, if you offer someone money, they will usually be inclined to accept it. Want to get into any but the very top PhD programs? Say you’ll pay your way and you can at least start. Finding someone who wants to give you money is harder than finding someone who wants yours.

Universities have realized this.

Finally, I’ll note that, in the absence of a better job, I will do whatever jobs I can get, and, in my life, some relatively low-status jobs have been better than relatively high status jobs; working as a lifeguard, for example, is more fun than being a lawyer, and it was a great job from a writing perspective: about 10% of my conscious mind would keep an eye on the pool while the other 90% came up with ideas. I wish I’d been smarter and started lifeguarding in high school.**

It’s true that lifeguards don’t get to fuck with other people’s lives in the way some lawyers do, so it may be a worse occupation for the power hungry, but it also doesn’t require tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars in loans to be a lifeguard.

* “When the Facts Change, I Change My Mind. What Do You Do, Sir?”

** Then again most people probably wish they’d made smarter choices.

3 responses

  1. Two thoughts. First, you have inspired me to write a blog post about my most notable mistakes in life. Stay tuned. (I’ve been away from blogging, but I expect to resume it soon).

    Second, I think that committed intellectuals inevitably pay a price for their endeavors. Often it’s a financial price, sometimes it’s an emotional price. The one thing that comforts me during times of financial hardship is that Chinese intellectuals suffered all kinds of indignities during the Cultural Revolution (and even in the 1990s, in the post Tianamen Square fallout grad students were required to work on farms ). And intellectuals in Eastern bloc countries were blackballed or even imprisoned. The stakes were different of course, but not necessary better or worse than being an intellectual in the US today.

    The problem inherent in your mea culpa that the knowledge gained from experience may apply only to your case or a specific set of circumstances. At grad school I received outstanding insider’s tips on getting published. But I can say that within 10 years every single tip turned out to be no longer true. I think these mea culpas are good for the specific information they impart but for illustrating how easy it is for reasonably smart people to misinterpret a situation and make faulty plans.

    With regard to the novel, I think the more interesting question today is “given the abundance of talented writers and a general decline in time spent reading, why spend your creative energies trying to write a novel anymore?” I think each person will be able to provide a different answer to this question.


  2. Oops, missing word. I meant to say. ” I think these mea culpas are NOT good for the specific information they impart but for illustrating how easy it is for reasonably smart people to misinterpret a situation and make faulty plans.”


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