I recently wrote a blog for Class Action called What Happens When Degrees Aren’t Enough? In it, I talked about the struggle of being a first-generation college student and the uncertainty around transitioning from school to full-time work. Having just completed graduate school a couple months before my blog was posted, I found myself worried for the future. My rent needed to be paid, bills were piling up and humans have this pesky need to feed ourselves. Not having a job was terrifying, and I was beginning to wonder if any of my interviews were ever going to pan out.
When my blog was posted to the Class Action Facebook page, I couldn’t help but be annoyed by the comment left on the post. The commenter wrote that “…encouraging students to pursue a masters [sic] degree (not a Ph.D.) in Women and Gender Studies [sic] as a solid path to employment is more disingenuous than the law schools that have been sued for doing the same.”
Now, I could spend this post talking about how disingenuous it is to leave a comment like this on a post where someone is talking about how poverty turns our basic needs into luxuries, or how it is ultimately unhelpful to say “well, you should have taken a different path” after a six-year investment into getting an education. But I won’t.
Because I’ve heard this argument time and time again – from people with master’s degrees and people without. From people who are wealthy and from people who are poor. From people who think they’re being helpful and from people who know they aren’t and don’t care.
While attitudes like this one fail to understand that many students (primarily low-wealth students) are failing to find jobs after college, they fall perfectly in line with many of the classist and sexist assumptions I’ve dealt with since pursuing my master’s in Women’s and Gender Studies. These assumptions are largely informed by two myths:
- “Good jobs” pay large salaries but are not emotionally or politically fulfilling.
- Education around race, class, gender and other marginalized identities is idealistic, lacks any real-world application and ultimately lacks value. Hoo-boy, if that doesn’t sound like Capitalism in a nutshell.
How Systems Affect Choices
These assumptions are harmful, because they are often informed by willful ignorance and a refusal to imagine a more equitable world. Likewise, they ignore the specific contexts in which people are trying to survive, and how those contexts influence the opportunities we are able to access. As a result, the responsibility of making it out alive is placed onto individual poor people, rather than acknowledging how unjust systems have been built around us.
[gdlr_quote align=”center” ]…we are told that the solution to poverty is to find ways to pick a high-paying job off the job tree growing in our backyards, to forget about personal fulfillment or changing the contexts we labor under and to, ultimately, “make smarter decisions.”[/gdlr_quote]
Ultimately, these assumptions disingenuously encourage poor people to buy into capitalism as a solution to our problems – problems which have been engineered by capitalism. In other words, we are told that the solution to poverty is to find ways to pick a high-paying job off the job tree growing in our backyards, to forget about personal fulfillment or changing the contexts we labor under and to, ultimately, “make smarter decisions.” (e.g., think like someone who has money, because we all know that wealthy people spend money responsibly.)
While it took hard work and dedication for me to get to this point, I know that my success has also been born out of luck and circumstance. College is not for everyone, and that’s not a bad thing. Intelligence is not synonymous with book-smarts. While I am proud of (and will fiercely defend) my degree, I still don’t think it’s fair that most people without them struggle to survive.
It is completely by chance that I am someone who enjoys academic learning – and that academic learning is seen by mainstream society as more valuable than physical labor or food service. An equitable world wouldn’t disproportionately reward and punish people based on personality differences or the kinds of jobs that have been made available to them.
Despite knowing intimately the terror of poverty, I am unwilling to sacrifice myself and my beliefs for a bigger paycheck. I pursued a degree that I could be proud of – one that has given me the tools to reimagine what is possible for the world around me. My degree has also helped me to understand what my role in changing unjust systems might be.
Soon after my blog was posted, I began working part-time for the nation’s leading organization in reproductive justice and health care. After that, I also accepted a full-time job with one of the most progressive foundations in the South, focusing on systems-change around poverty. Two jobs may sound like a lot to handle – but women and poor people are used to hard work.
And, as you so eloquently put it: “My degree has also helped me to understand what my role in changing unjust systems might be.” You didn’t do it for a paycheck. You did it for you, and me, and for all of us who struggle, and even for those (perhaps like the person who posted the comment you mentioned) who need liberation and don’t fully realize it yet. Thank you for all that you risk and sacrifice to build a better world for us all.
I think the attitude you experience is often driven by the idea that degrees are related to the jobs you get. That has never been totally true, but a lot of general commentary seems to work from that premise. I have not encountered the notion that a good job pays a lot of money, except for people who borrow to get a degree that is not a direct line to high salary. There seems to be a sense that good jobs are in the financial sector,and anything else does not pay enough to live on. It’s that expectation that you graduate and move into a job related to your degree, and then keep advancing. That sort of life structure has never been as secure as people in general like to believe; some people do live it, often people from upper-middle class backgrounds, but even they are not totally secure.
I’m 71, from a working-class, small town background. I got a degree in teaching English, but hated teaching so never did it. I borrowed money at 3% interest; (the 60s were a good time for higher ed) paid it back of 20 years as the interest rate grew but mine did not. Got a masters in library science with a 1/2 time assistantship and then a civil service job at the same college I attended. My concern was always to make a decent living; financial security trumped everything else, but I enjoyed my work, found it of value, helped bring a union to our job class and am now retired with a decent pension if the state does not muck it up. My degree in teaching of English let me take a lot of literature classes and I could just do what I needed in the teaching classes
I think this kind of career is harder to achieve now, but I certainly never felt that the work I chose made me less fulfilled. I am not sure that high-paying jobs are necessarily less emotionally or politically fulfilling for people who take them. Not everyone wants to change things; people I know who look for those jobs are often strivers for social recognition and some find doing their work well, and making a lot of money, emotionally satisfying.
Working class people may have a more nuanced look at social structure and economic rewards earlier than people from higher class backgrounds.