Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Back To School

When posts collide.

This column started life as a response to the "Should You Go to College?" bong that's being passed around in the familiar NYT-Yglesias-Sullivan-NYT circle in the dorm room down the hall.

Then it collided with Suzannah Breslin's delightful advice column , "How to Fail at a Job Interview".

Then it caromed off of an uplifting story about a high school of my acquaintance.

So now it's something else.

Part I: Like, or Like Not. There is no "Why".

Back when I was a dashing, worldly Returning Adult College Student, I picked up a little rent-and-sammich money as a student worker: a job for which I was hilariously overqualified, and which I enjoyed a lot.

After sizing me up (which, as I recall, involved seeing how well I could handle the weapon's suite in whatever the latest first-person-shooter game was popular at the moment, and playing some deep-cut "Depeche Mode" b-side and asking me if I recognized it in a tone that suggested shibboleth-testing) my fellow student workers accepted me as one of the tribe, I found myself;
1) Playing a lot more chess than I had played in years and,

2) Being asked to regale them with Amazing True Tales of a strange place called the Real World about which they had only heard scraps and whispers around the campfire ("...and so the intern hit the gas and rocketed down the old country road. By the time she got back to town she felt silly about being so scared...but when she got out of the car to look for what had made the scraping sound...she found the escaped maniac supervisor's metal hand stuck to the back bumper...still holding her shitty employee evaluation!")
Among these 20-something art, theater and videography majors, many myths had grown up about the Real World -- a terra incognita which I (not unlike Bilbo Baggins) had traversed and lived to tell about.

Overwhelmingly, their legends about the Real World all descended from some
understanding that they had picked up in their childhood about how people should behave and how work ought to be.

"I mean, people can't just fire someone for no good reason, right?"
Sure they can. I'd guess that thousands of people get hired and fired every month for no good reason at all.
"But if you work really hard and you do a great job...?"
You should do that anyway, but no, being competent is no protection against being summarily shitcanned. In fact in many places being competent makes you a threat.
These were not idle questions: these young men and women had almost all taken on huge debt loads to buy a piece of paper that said they were prepared to be dropped onto an alien world, and they were beginning to suspect that, by way of practical preparation, their elders may have given them a box of Crayons and a "Steak n' Shake Funland" maze instead of the maps and weapons necessary to survive the rigors

of planet LV-426.

During one semester this sense of dread was sharply heightened when one of their older peers -- a gifted grad student -- took a job at The Very Prestigious Advertising Company, and over the course of several weeks was driven to frantic despair by what she believed to be the unfair and contradictory demands of her many bosses.

Each time she returned to us she looked more and more defeated and desperate. She spoke of impossible deadlines. Of creatively deadening projects. Of incredibly clueless superiors with enormous power. What, did they expect her to give up her outside life and just work for them around the clock?

"Yes," I told her during one of our asides. "That is exactly what they expect you to do."

"But this is ridiculous! How can people work like this?"

I shrugged. "Millions do. Every day."

She was near tears.

"Well that's just totally stupid. And unfair. They don't even know what they're doing. They won't give me a chance to good work."

I agreed. I still do. My heart went out to her and to all the others with whom I have had such conversations over the years.

Part II: "Oh, people can come up with statistics to prove anything. 14% of people know that." -- Homer Simpson

Here is a useful chart (one of many) that explains where all of your hard work on those impossible deadlines working on horrible misconceived projects for those brain-dead bosses ends up going:

You Have Nothing To Lose But Your Gains

Productivity has surged, but income and wages have stagnated for most Americans. If the median household income had kept pace with the economy since 1970, it would now be nearly $92,000, not $50,000.

Part III: The Real World does not care that you can recite the Bhagavad Gītā backwards and can change water into Fanta with your mind.

Here is a snip from the fine column by Ms. Breslin that explains how humans get jobs in the Real World

How to Fail at a Job Interview
Jun. 22 2011

I’ve been on more job interviews this year than any other year in my life.

This is a good thing (theoretically, at least) because it forces you to figure out who you are and sell it.

Can’t do that? You lose.

TIP #1: Miss the point.

Earlier this month, I hired a young female journalist to write a guest post on this blog for $100. (Expect to see it soon.) As a hirer, I was forced to confront the real reason why people hire you.

Because they like you.

This has been said elsewhere, but it is the single truth people fail to grasp about interviewing. It’s not about your skills, it’s not about your resume, it’s not about if you answered the questions right.

Do they like you? If they like you the best, they will hire you. If they don’t, they won’t.
Remember that: social networks and chemistry count for vastly more than you are ever led to believe in school. This will be on the test and will count for 75% of your final grade.

(Also Not!ABL from "Balloon Juice" wants to remind all the ladies that a clean cootch is vital.)

Part IV: Driftglass talks to Young Americans about college
Here, in no particular order, are some home truths I know about college that did not get covered by the New York Times or Think Progress.
  • The old social order that paid teachers much less than plumbers but rewarded teachers with a higher social distinction is now gone. The collapse of the union movement, the rise of the "college prep or bust" mentality in secondary education and the highly-focused Conservative contempt for all public employees has remade our national narrative into a Gothic horror story about billionaire CEOs Galtian heroes versus school teaching AFT moochers and looting SEIU goons.

  • As someone who has hired many, many people, I can tell you that, outside of special training and certification requirements, a degree is generally treated as little more than a filtering device to save the HR manager from having to read 1,000 resumes for every job. It represents nothing more than a proxy for "do you have a pulse, can you read at a ninth grade level, and can you sit still and not fuck up too badly for 2-4 years? Yes? Great. we'll train you to do the rest."

  • If you are suspected of being over 45, no one will hire you, and details about your college years and experience serve as a way for hiring managers to very quickly weed out middle-aged applicants without leaving fingerprints. In the age of "we'll get back to you, but we really never do" you will likely never know why you didn't get that job, but the whiff of gray hair and higher health care premiums are a huge reason.

  • The business of college isn't primarily about education anymore: it is about buying a Wonka Golden Ticket that will get your kid a place on the ever-shrinking cultural lifeboat called The Middle Class. It means a house, maybe, and a job with benefits, maybe. Sure Junior might be on the road 270 days a years for the Ramjak Corporation selling Chinese anthrax-dipped toys to babies, but Junior will be in a suit and have a per diem and have a scrap of paper that says they shouldn't be fired first when the company decides to move most of its operations to Saigon.

  • The day institutions of higher learning figured that they held sole title to a device that could produce secular economic indulgences was the day educational quality and college experience began to become completely secondary to the awarding of pieces of paper for which the American public would pay ANY price.

  • Colleges generate vast wealth and are run as a feudal system: those at the top -- officers and those with tenure -- often enjoy comforts, wages and appurtenances that would astonish you, which is why tenure is handed out only to those who work the hardest to help keep the feudal system intact. Everyone else from janitors to "associate" professors are itinerant labor that will one day be hired by the van-load for cash from pools of dirty, sullen unemployed English and Philosophy majors who will be living in abandoned refrigerator boxes insulated with moldering copies Master's theses on "The influence of 'The Beverly Hillbillies' on the novels of the New South", in vast slums called "Michenervilles".

  • If you can afford it, go anyway. From a spiritual perspective, you'll find a couple of great teachers who will change your life and why would you deny yourself that? From a career perspective, the most durable capital is social capital. The mentors you will have and the contacts you will make in school will pay you far better dividends for far longer than almost anything you will book-learn there. Also unless you are, say, a flautist or a New York Times op-ed pundit, you are going to need skills upgrades for the rest of your life starting right now, so over time the whole distinction between white collar and blue collar career paths becomes more and more meaningless.

Part V: The Wisdom of Youth.

Before you listen either to me or to the New York Times, consider taking a real Real World lesson from some terrific young men and women who are graduating from the very first senior class of a new Chicago high school called Austin Polytech -- a flawed but promising and innovative academy in the heart of one of Chicago's toughest, poorest neighborhoods that is trying to erase the false and destructive distinction between a good vocational education and a good college-prep education, while at the same time producing the next generation of leaders in the field of advanced manufacturing.

You want hope? You want "act local"? You want a practical economic, educational and community-based vision of a better future with something to offer both Liberals and Conservatives of good faith? A place where smart labor and smart business can both lay down their swords for a moment and perhaps find common ground?

I give you APA.

A Troubled High School Celebrates a Milestone

Austin Polytechnical Academy opened on the West Side of Chicago in 2007 as the city’s first and only career academy dedicated to occupations in high-skill manufacturing. On June 12, the school sent its first 92 graduates into that understaffed job market, many with industry-recognized credentials, internship experience and more than three years of engineering classes on their transcripts.

The school, developed as part of the Renaissance 2010 initiative by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, then chief executive of Chicago Public Schools, aims to prepare students to fill some of the nation’s estimated three million vacant positions in science, technology, engineering and math. The ambitious plan seeks to engage private-industry companies to help train the students, all of them from a community that has watched local industry flee, unemployment climb and foreclosure rates soar to the highest in the city.

Where graduates go from here — work force or college, inside or outside the community — will be a test of achievement for Austin Polytech.

Since September, the Chicago News Cooperative has followed three students: Stran’Ja Burge and Marquiese Travae Booker, both seniors, and Deandre Joyce, a junior. In that time, the school has endured wrenching changes, many of them emblematic of a larger instability within C.P.S. as leaders seek to reform one of the country’s largest and most troubled public school systems .

Two separate narratives about the school have emerged: one public and one private; one filled with success, the other fraught with troubles.

In the positive narrative, the Center for Labor and Community Research, a nonprofit organization, helped Austin Polytech obtain accreditation for its machine shop through the National Institute for Metalworking Skills, becoming the only high school in Illinois to earn that classification. The school also rolled out two job-shadowing programs, secured summer jobs and internships for 36 students, and saw 89 students earn 123 industry-recognized certificates.

But it was also a year of nearly constant fits and starts by the C.P.S. system, sapping energy from teachers, administrators and students.

Yet for students like Ms. Burge, who is ranked in the top 10 of her class, as well as for Mr. Joyce and Mr. Booker, much of the hurly-burly has been a sideshow to the usual rites of passage: college applications, ACTs, prom, final exams and future plans. The unrest at the school was more a nuisance than anything else, they said.

What comes next is different for each: Ms. Burge will attend college at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, where she will play basketball and pursue a degree in engineering. Mr. Booker landed a job at the Laystrom Manufacturing Company, where he interned last summer. Mr. Joyce hopes to stay on track during his senior year, raise his ACT score from an 18 to a 20, and then decide what will come next: college or work.

Despite the school’s tumultuous year, Ms. Burge said she had enjoyed her time at Austin Polytech. It gave her the opportunity to take advanced-placement calculus, travel to Washington on behalf of the school and participate in student government.

As she headed off to school a few days before the graduation ceremony, Ms. Burge walked by her uncle sleeping on the front porch. He struggles with addiction and her grandmother lets him sleep there, she said, adding that his example was an impetus to work harder.

“I’m not like ‘Aw because my uncle’s a crackhead, then I’m not going to go to school,’ ” she said last fall. “I’m going to do the reverse and because I see him do that, this is why I’m going to school every day and this why I’m going to college.” She is the first in her family to pursue college outside Illinois.

When Mr. Booker was not playing baseball or practicing with the bowling team, he spent the year working at Harold’s Chicken and trying to figure out what came next. Then an opportunity presented itself. Laystrom Manufacturing offered Mr. Booker a position, created just for him, in the quality control department. He took the job.

There is no Bachmann in this story. No political horse race between "I don't know" and "I don't care" for our pundit class to get a case of hopping priapism over. No place for a wingnut to get his "welfare queen" bigot batteries recharged. No pie fight over the debt ceiling between the craven and the insane.

Just a page 10 story from my own back yard about the poise, persistence and character of some fine young men and women who are up against obstacles every day of their lives that are far more formidable than Eric Fucking Cantor and his Insane Teabagger Posse.

For the record, this is what gives me hope.

Also for the record, this is why I have zero patience for whiners who counsel giving up and rolling over because Harry Reid is still a jellybag, and Barack Obama hurt their fee-fees.


Anonymous said...


Also for the record, this is why I have zero patience for whiners who counsel giving up and rolling over because Harry Reid is still a jellybag, and Barack Obama hurt their fee-fees.

Sad Iron said...

Can I also say that going to College and being, yes, an English and History major, allowed me to develop a head that I can stand living inside of--in some ways that's enough for me. I was lucky--worked hard in grad school, got tenure at a University (for under 40 grand, so no Feudal overlord there). Still, everyday I am thankful for my mental life (as you must be, because this blog is 100% awesome every day). Without college, here's what I would care about: Miller, Budweiser, ESPN, ESPN, and ESPN, porn, tits, ESPN, who's the greatest running back of all time, damn libruls, wow look at that ass, Miller, Budweiser, funny Miller and Budweiser commercials, The Hangover 6 is hilarious. Repeat. Basically, a life not worth living.

Anonymous said...

Sad Iron, just because you're educated doesn't mean you can't enjoy some of the simpler aspects of life such as the beauty of woman or the spectacle of sports. Don't be an "elitest" either.

Sad Iron said...

Anonymous--I didn't mean it that way; I meant that list as representing the full sum of one's life experience (not something they may enjoy now and then), and I know many people like this, some who are close to me. I'm just saying that I am thankful for the personal results and satisfaction of my education, rather than what job it immediately placed me in. I watched my former Buffalo Bills lose 4 straight super bowls, and I watched my current Packers win this year's, so I know what it is to enjoy sports. Anyway, no offense meant.

Anonymous said...

Don't bother trying to explain an education lets you enjoy things more complicated than good looks or sports to someone who uses right-wing talking point words like "Elitest", you'll just waste your breath :-P

Sad Iron said...

Agreed. Now I'm off to the salad bar at Applebee's to hang with David Brooks and the real folk.

M. Krebs said...


How long do they think people will continue to take that as a fucking compliment? "Productivity" is inversely proportional to workers' income. Being more productive just means you are entitled to a goddamn raise.

Cirze said...

I thought the productivity measure was exposed as a fraud long ago.

But maybe I wasn't being as productive as I should have been being the day I read that.


Great essay, Dg.

I still think Duncan is a NeoCon and just one more of Obie's slick boys.

someofparts said...

Reading Suzannah Breslin's piece, I think her first point goes right to the heart of how bigotry damages a person professionally. Ever since the right wing started spewing their venom it has gotten harder and harder to find an employer who likes an obvious liberal better than the competition. Entire job categories become unthinkable, insofar as they involve lots of social contact.

Comrade PhysioProf said...

Brilliant post, holmes! Just when I start lazily thinking of you almost solely as master of the metaphor, you deliver an absolutely magnificent narrative arc, like in this post.

Anonymous said...

When I came back from Vietnam, I had disposed of most of the baggage known as ethics or morals.

Because mental conditions caused long periods of unemployment, any resume would have been sure garbage.

If I were sane enough to work, I had absolutely no compunction about bribing the decision maker to give me a job.

It works from kicking back part of your wage working construction in Kansas to the foreman of the job, to paying a recruiter to get me a job as a medical consultant to CPA organizations on how to work the law. I had none of the necessary published qualifications, but a 10 percent kickback got me higher pay than the actual partners in the firm.

Charm, political sense and cash will advance anyone to higher authority a lot faster than some BS from colleges (yes, I have over 20 years of formal education and am short a couple of courses of having about 5 to 7 formal degrees.)

I'm not sure of what the stats are now but when I was researching how to get rich the fastest, I stumbled across some PhD Thesis that casually mentioned that more of the new millionaires had gotten rich on property speculations and selling cars than any other way.

You don't really need a college education to do either of those things.

Mister Roboto said...

[OWDT]Let us also not forget the overarching factor that has made the job-market so precarious for college-graduates, namely that our society has been hemorraging jobs for the past thirty years, especially so the past fifteen. And this is hapenning because it is becoming increasingly difficult to have infinite growth on finite planet. (The specific operative factor is that ever since 1971, we have had to import an increasing percentage of the petroleum we consume. Before that, the United States of America, believe it or not, was the world's swing producer.)

And I fail to see what any of this has to do with the efficacy or lack thereof of voting for Democrats, but it's your blog, so whatever floats yer boat, I guess.[/OWDT]

Mister Roboto said...

Oh yeah, and as for hurting my feelings, I operate under the assumption that my feelings, such as they remain, are going to be hurt. After all, if you'll pardon my recycling of a rather banal meme from popular culture ("Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus"), we live on "Mars" not "Venus". For that matter, we live in Deeply Corrupt And Insane Mars in this country!

But to cite my favorite example, imprisoned Wiki-leaker Pvt. Bradley Manning, had his deep-isolation treatment continued unabated, would have had more than his feelings hurt. His personality would have been erased until there was nothing left of him but a mere shell. Don't worry, I'll vote for BO and the Democrats because I sent an e-mail to White House saying I would do so if they would end the torture of Pvt. Manning. But if you're wondering why I harp on Pvt. Manning the way I do, it is because the way he was almost destroyed by his ordeal is a potent symbol of how far Barack Obama is from what he projected himself to be on the campaign trail.

If you want another example, one of the Obama campaign's major themes was the need for transparency in government and principled whistleblowers. But the Obama Administration has become an even more zealous prosecutor and persecutor of whistleblowers than even the Bush Administration.

For all I know, Barack Obama might have been taken into a room right after he was sworn in and told he was going to do things "their" way "or else". As crazy as that sounds, that would certainly explain the discrepancy between the Obama of the campaign trail and the Obama in the White House. But to say that this discrepancy is all perception on the part of liberals who habitually expect too much is just willful cognitive dissonance of the most jaw-dropping sort.

Professional Left Podcast #608

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