Employment, attitude, and educational entitlement

This whole attitude is weird to me:

He says his name is George but declines to give his last name. He’s 29 years old, holds a master’s degree in economics, and has been unemployed for a year and a half, not counting the five months he worked as a street cleaner.

“It’s more difficult for the highly qualified,” he says. “The market thinks we will cost too much.” He’s applying for a position as a secretary, a job that requires a high school degree. For a couple of minutes, he and Stratigaki discuss whether his education will be an asset or a liability, and then their names are called.”

People aren’t owed jobs because of (possibly bogus) qualifications or credentials; they get jobs because they can do something valuable for someone else. Degrees don’t necessarily show that, and I’ve met plenty of doofuses in advanced degree programs or with advanced degrees, who I wouldn’t hire, and plenty of people without degrees, who I would hire.

That point doesn’t say much about the macro situation in Greece, which is dire and a human tragedy. Nonetheless, the idea that being “highly qualified” automatically makes someone worthy of a job is bizarre to me yet also seems endemic among many of the people I run into, who view educational credentials as accurate proxies for valued skills. Yet I look at many of the people I’ve met in various forms of higher education (law school, grad school in English lit) and am struck by how few of them I would hire to write proposals.

Among people in the English grad department, I can think of no one I would want to hire—students or professors. Perhaps I am judging them unfairly, but the stories about marginally employed “professors” on food stamps makes sense to me, because what else are many of these people going to do? Many don’t even seem to realize that, given their sometimes tremendous writing talents, getting a blog is the way to spread ideas and make connections. Many seem to have a limited sense of possibility. On the other hand, I’ve met two different people on the Internet who, if I suddenly needed a writer, I’d seek out, since both are already competent writers who can get things done.

By contrast, generic grad students frequently spend a decade in grad school and have literally nothing to show for their effort other than their degrees; a few have peer-reviewed articles that are only 25 pages long and intellectually vacuous at that. Many perpetual students don’t seem to care about whether they provide value for someone else or somehow just deserve jobs for existing.

To my mind, the question of “What value do I provide for other people?” is paramount, so much so that I keep citing it again and and again in this post, even if “What degrees do I have or can I get?” is easier.

February links: DevonThink Pro, advice for novelists, dull global English, and more

* DevonThink Pro 2.0 came out today. Read about it at the link; I’m a regular user thanks to Steven Berlin Johnson’s Tool For Thought.

* TSA arrests a student for having Arabic flash cards. Something must be very, very wrong with that institution.

* Mark Sarvas is writing on The Elegant Variation more often again; this post on the lessons of reading a bunch of first novels is compelling for its advice, although that advice feels somewhat vague without specific examples in it.

* “The Real Danger of Debt: The United States is deep in the red — and doesn’t have the political tools to get out.”

* “What’s a Degree Really Worth?” The answer might be “not as much as you think,” at least monetarily. Still, according to the article,

Most researchers agree that college graduates, even in rough economies, generally fare better than individuals with only high-school diplomas. But just how much better is where the math gets fuzzy.

But the article doesn’t deal with a) how much different majors earn and b) what students gain outside of mere earning power, which might not translate directly into money. The first is particularly significant: hard science majors tend to make way more than liberal arts majors like me. The headline might better state, “college is what you make of it, and if you don’t make much of it, don’t expect a huge amount of money on the other end.”

* On foreign currency reserves as a metric of wealth.

* What readers think they want writers to know. There are a lot of questionable assumptions and comments in it, like this: “Readers are what every novelist really wants […]”. Many novelists want readers, but since the Modernists many literary writers have considered scaring away readers to be a sign of success.

The pleas for story also reminds of what James Wood called “the essential juvenility of plot” in How Fiction Works. Although I disagree with Wood’s comment, I think it’s indicative of the fact that different readers have different demands: highly sophisticated readers who’ve experienced thousands of novels probably look for somewhat different things than those who haven’t.

* The Dull New Global Novel:

More importantly the language is kept simple. Kazuo Ishiguro has spoken of the importance of avoiding word play and allusion to make things easy for the translator. Scandinavian writers I know tell me they avoid character names that would be difficult for an English reader.

If culture-specific clutter and linguistic virtuosity have become impediments, other strategies are seen positively: the deployment of highly visible tropes immediately recognizable as “literary” and “imaginative,” analogous to the wearisome lingua franca of special effects in contemporary cinema, and the foregrounding of a political sensibility that places the author among those “working for world peace.” So the overstated fantasy devices of a Rushdie or a Pamuk always go hand in hand with a certain liberal position since, as Borges once remarked, most people have so little aesthetic sense they rely on other criteria to judge the works they read.

* The value of cities, and note in particular the value of New York, which reflects how the city is organized more than anything else. Metropolises like Phoenix, Tucson, and those in Texas should take note.

* Almost no one knows anything about North Korea, including me, despite having opinions on nuclear sanctions and so forth against the country. Two new books try to remedy that: Barbara Demick’s Nothing To Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea and B.R. Myers’ The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves and Why It Matters. Both those links go to good Slate articles about the books in question.

* Jason Fisher on the online Literary Encyclopedia.

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