RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

Get to Work, Kids

The fact that college grads are having trouble finding jobs in a recession has been given cover by every East-Coast magazine and newspaper, leaving the recent grads with the impression that it’s OK to refuse a job if it’s not up to their standards. USA Today asks if college is overrated. One New York magazine had a cover showing a youngster hanging his PhD diploma in his room, surrounded by trophies from his grade-school days, as Mom and Dad peeked in from the hallway.

This is not OK, youngster, and you need to get into the fray.

The July 7 New York Times covered a front-page story about Scott Nicholson, Colgate grad, who spent his mornings in Mom’s living room cruising web sites for job openings. If you asked Scott about the meaning of his education, you’d probably hear a price tag, but the kid had turned down a $40,000-per-year offer as an insurance claims adjuster, which he thought was “likely to stunt his career.”

Here’s my prediction: The next president of one of the biggest health insurance companies in the world started his career as a claims adjuster.

To Scott’s parents, or to any woman that graduated before about 1990 or any minority or even any Midwestern farm kid that graduated any year including the present time, turning down $40,000 a year is recklessness of the highest order. Spending down Mom’s and Dad’s savings isn’t going to help you in the long run, Scott, and a stint at anything — landscaper, lifeguard, stop sign holder for the highway crew, ski lift operator, wedding reception deejay — will teach you something valuable and put you out in the public.

No doubt about it, in the long run college grads will make more money than their high school grad brothers and sisters. And, just a few years ago, they could be guaranteed jobs after baccalaureate paying more than their professors made. But that, dear kiddos, was a bubble. And it hasn’t taken employers long to figure out that they were hiring people that had no life experience, jumped jobs when they got bored, spent too much time on line, and expected the moon on a silver platter. Some of those highly paid grads were the first to go in the recession and are back on the pavement.

Every decade or so, educators re-evaluate the idea of education completely. About 10 years ago, colleges left the liberal arts model and started business schools. Education was becoming so expensive that, university deans reasoned, somebody needed to justify the expense in terms of the money kids could make when they finished.

It’s time to re-evaluate, and to think about the benefits to students of having an interesting mind to live in. An educated, questioning mind when it’s time to make decisions that affect our future. Folks need to learn the principles of honesty and perseverance, things that the traditions of our society can teach. But, then, there’s the expense thing looming its ugly head.

In most of the world, students go to college somewhat later and somewhat more slowly than we do here. The gap year is standard all over Europe, giving kids a year or more to travel and to work those menial jobs that put you in contact with lots of people in lots of professions. Maybe they wait tables, schedule the veterinary’s appointments or dispatch fire trucks to fires. At any rate, they have time to participate in the world and think about their role as citizens for the next forty or fifty years. What do they really want to do with all that life?

Sure, they want to make money, and, sure, they want time to fool with Space Book or whatever social networking fad develops, but they will also be the decision makers of the future. To them will come the inevitable questions of how the planet looks and where we get our energy and how we use it.

Maybe college should become, instead of the inevitable result of high school pomp and circumstance, a reward for jobs well done when you reach about 30 years old. That would give the student time to think about what they really want to do. Because, of course, when something’s gained there’s something lost. A friend, a first-in-her-family college grad, reminded me recently that the first generation educated is the first generation that loses the knowledge that kept her family going. In her case, she was trying to maintain the memory of herbal remedies at a time that the grannies were all passing away.

At the same time, we all know kids that started as gofers, but proved they could show up on time, be courteous and do their jobs. Higher in the food chain, somebody got promoted, somebody moved away, somebody died, and there was an opening for the gofer. Maybe s/he got a chance to work on a special project, something that, let’s say, worked.

That’s how a career happens.

But that’s not the only reason for an education, or for society to have an educated population.

Margot Ford McMillen farms and teaches English at a college in Fulton, Mo. Email:

From The Progressive Populist, August 15, 2010

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