On the Limits of Education and the Meaning of Work

From the opening scenes of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rich and Strange (1931) from http://filmtravers.com/reviews/FT_Rich_and_Strange_1931.html

A couple of weeks ago, I told my freshman composition class that they needed to think hard about whether they should be in college. This flies in the face of what community college professors are supposed to say. We’re programmed, in one way or another, to tell students that getting a college degree is important to their success, that it can help them to a good, stable job, and that it will improve their lives–all of which are excellent things. There’s only one problem.

I no longer believe it will.

I won’t go into the fact that my students, like most community college students, live on the edge. It takes little to derail them: an illness, a sick parent or child, pregnancy, a missed payment on their house or car, a pink slip. Granted, these are not the kind of people who are movers and shakers, who are watching TED talks on how to make their work meaningful as well as rewarding (a sample of which you can find here). Yet these very students are among the most ambitious I’ve ever encountered in my 25 + years in higher education, and all they want is the lowest degree possible after high school: an associate’s degree, which may not be worth the paper it’s written on.

I won’t even go into the argument alluded to above: that the value of associate degrees is not guaranteed (although articles like this one in the October 3, 2013, issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education make that sobering point). My point was quite different, and it’s one I wish more people would consider.

It stems from the fact that most of us–99% of us, in fact–have to work to feed, clothe, and sustain ourselves. Of course, humans have always had to work for sustenance, and for much of our history, this work wasn’t too engaging. How interesting is it, for example, to gather berries or tend livestock? It may be satisfying, to a certain degree, but it isn’t mentally stimulating–at least, not in the same way that studying philosophy, or working on a multi-national marketing project, can be. Some time in the last fifty years or so, it seems that Americans have added several requirements to any job that we consider for a career: it must be lucrative, it must be meaningful (whatever that means), and it must be intellectually engaging. Any truly desirable job must exercise our minds and feed our souls as well as fill our pockets.

And because of this expectation–that our jobs will exercise and use our minds–we have given up the responsibility to do so ourselves. What this means is that when we take a job that is not intellectually challenging, as some of us must, we tend to give up on seeking out ways to enrich our minds through work. We succumb to the lure of popular culture, with its insipid siren call to watch pointless television shows; we anesthetize ourselves with a partying culture that emphasizes drinking, drug use, and sex as a means of escape from an existence of drudgery. Once thoroughly anesthetized, we are seduced into accepting the status quo without questioning if it is, after all, the best way to live.

It doesn’t have to be this way, however. What I told my students is that they need to find out what’s important to them and make that their Work–with a capital “W.” This Work, I said, is what will get them through all the crummy jobs–and there will be many of those–they’ll be forced to take. For example, maybe their Work is writing short stories, or playing jazz guitar, or spinning wool and knitting sweaters: the actual Work they do doesn’t matter. Rather, it’s the devotion they bring to it, their dedication to it, that will enrich them and allow them to deal with having to take work that doesn’t allow them to find life meaningful. Be a barista if you have to, I told them; but make sure you have Work to make your work worth doing.

Those of us who live in capitalist countries, whose work is appropriated by others for profit, have the greatest need to find our own Work, so that we make our lives count for something other than a ledger sheet of profit and loss. If we must labor to live, and if only a few of us can find work that exercises all–or even a majority–of our faculties, then it is up to each one of us to find the Work that makes us human. This is what I was urging my students to do when I told them to think about whether they should be in college: do not let college prevent you from finding your Work and dedicating yourself to it. Don’t expect to find a job that will line up perfectly with your Work (although some people are lucky enough to do that). Instead, I said, get a job to help support that Work and make your life possible; your Work will make it meaningful.

On Sappy Movies and Why We Should Watch Them


The other night, I watched a 1957 movie called Tammy and the Bachelor. It’s a sappy movie, starring Debbie Reynolds and an unbelievably young and handsome Leslie Nielsen, and it’s famous for its theme song “Tammy,” which was a number one hit on the charts when the movie came out. Both the song and the film are saccharine, however, and I’m embarrassed not only about watching it, but about having to admit that I actually liked it, too. But, as I pointed out in last week’s blog, the internet was made expressly for embarrassing disclosures, so I’m going to go ahead and write something here that I’ll probably regret in the near future: there’s nothing wrong with watching a movie like Tammy and the Bachelor, and, in fact, we’re may actually be missing out on something important if we don’t watch them from time to time.

I’m not really defending the movie or saying it’s great cinema. The truth is, Tammy and the Bachelor is over-the-top schmaltzy. In case you don’t remember or have never seen the movie, it’s all about a young backwoods girl who lives on a houseboat in Mississippi with her grandfather. Together, in a kind of Our-Mutual-Friend kind of beginning (and, on reflection, this movie might just be a 1950s reconstruction of Our Mutual Friend–Dickens was, after all, the king of schmaltz, and Tammy lines up quite nicely with Lizzie Hexam), they go downriver to salvage flotsam from a plane crash. While there, they unexpectedly discover a survivor: the bachelor of the title, played by Nielsen. The inevitable romantic attraction follows. It’s a simple plot, filled with amusing but highly improbable events. Tammy, as she is played by Debbie Reynolds–lovely, down to earth and somehow naive and nubile at the same time–is a far cry from our contemporary sense of the rural south (as in Duck Dynasty). Yet somehow, by the middle of the movie, there were enough really funny moments to make me forget how silly it all was. By the time Debbie sings her signature song, I was really enjoying the film–and forgetting to be embarrassed by it.

And then, as I thought about it, I discovered all kinds of reasons why it isn’t so bad to watch these old and outdated movies. True, Tammy isn’t thought-provoking. But neither are a lot of the movies in theatres today. The plot is completely predictable–where it’s not predictable, it’s implausible–and there’s blatant and troubling racism in the film (although there are extenuating circumstances for it). But it portrays a young woman who has interesting ideas and isn’t afraid to voice them, even when doing so gets her into trouble. That’s a small victory, yet an important one for a 1950s movie.

But here’s the real reason why I think we’re missing out when we don’t watch these old romantic comedies. It should come as no surprise when, at the end of the film, the destitute (but somehow fresh-faced and thoughtful) Tammy winds up with the impoverished but genteel David Brent, who appreciates all the quirks about Tammy–even her unorthodox ideas about life, which she tends to blurt out at inopportune moments. Their mutual on-screen chemistry and occasional sexually charged comments allude to an active and healthy romance to come. It’s good, clean, sexual fun, in fact: no power games and no using sex as a means to something else.

Ok, so this probably doesn’t really happen in real life. But neither do many of the plots from the kind of movies that are privileged today. And shouldn’t young people have some place they can go to–besides Disney’s animated films–where healthy sexual relationships are portrayed? Is relentless realism such a good thing that we can have nothing else? Are we so far gone that only by grafting romantic love onto supernatural, blood-craving vampires can we actually become interested in it any more?

If that’s the case, then I echo Thomas Carlyle, who said, “Close thy Byron; open thy Goethe” (Sartor Resartus). Let’s put down Fifty Shades of Grey and waste our time instead watching pointless, silly movies. At least we’ll feel a little more peace and contentment when the credits are rolling. Films like Tammy and the Bachelor give us something simple and (dare I say it?) pure to aim for in our own lives, and heaven knows we need a little more of that.

Online Privacy Concerns Are a Non-Issue


Ever since Edward Snowden defected after blowing the whistle on the NSA and its tendency to spy on normal citizens, there’s been a lot of talk about privacy and how it is being redefined during our lifetimes. We live in an exceptional age–the Age of the Internet–and this means that we leave a digital trail behind us every time we go on the internet to buy things, look things up, or watch things. We have traded the public square for a virtual platform; Facebook has become the place we go to hang out, talking to–and about–other people. We’ve traded our homey little coffee shop or bar for a social media program that displays our lives like an open Kindle book.

While it’s normal to be concerned about the fact that we are now all ultimately and essentially visible with all our tastes and tendencies apparent for all to see, concerns about the loss of privacy are greatly overstated. It would be impossible to be completely invisible, even if it were desirable. Each of us leaves a wake behind us as we travel through life, as surely as a boat leaves a wake even through the most turbulent waters it passes through. Only by living alone, in the midst of a wilderness, could we assure complete anonymity, a situation that seems to me inherently un-human and completely undesirable.

From http://thatsmaths.files.wordpress.com/2013/05/kelvin-wake-midres.jpeg
From http://thatsmaths.files.wordpress.com/2013/05/kelvin-wake-midres.jpeg

Humans are meant to live together. When we live together, in towns, cities, and small, rural communities, we brush up against each other. This is nothing new: we have always lived close to each other, and we have always left our trails behind us, whether in the refuse we produce (garbage, recycling, heavy trash), in the lives we create and those we touch (for better and for worse), and in the friendships we create–and terminate. It is–and should be–nearly impossible to skim across this life without leaving any signs of our existence. When we hear of someone who has achieved this, we feel no admiration for him or her but rather lament this kind of Prufrockian existence, this Willy Loman-ish life that fades into nothingness as soon as it ends.

Leaving traces of ourselves–even digital traces–is thus a good thing. It proves that we exist, if only for a short time. Of course, what worries people about the new, lower standard of privacy is that we are remarkably open with our computers; we type things into our browsers that we would be embarrassed to say in public. Browsers are much like our pets: we have few inhibitions in front of our dogs and cats, after all, and taking them into the bathroom, or into our beds, is quite common. If they could talk about us, we would surely be less inclined to be so open around them.

The development of the internet means that it is now quite easy for a government entity, or a commercial enterprise, to sweep in and find out things about us that we would not openly advertise or perhaps even admit. This is, however, nothing new. Governments have spied upon their citizens, seizing manuscripts and intercepting letters for the last thousand years, and in all likelihood back to classical times and pre-history. Complaining about our loss of privacy is ultimately futile, since there is nothing we can do about it. All forms of communication have always been co-opted by those in power and used to oppress others. The FBI engaged in wiretapping in the 1950s and 1960s, just as the first Queen Elizabeth’s informants spied on those engaged in illegal wool trading, men like William Shakespeare’s own father, John Shakespeare.

However, I’m not opposed to those who want new legislation to protect our privacy; in fact, I am grateful that they are willing to exert their energy and spend their time fighting this good fight. At the same time, it’s important to realize that there is no explicitly stated right to privacy in the Constitution. It would be hard to ensure such a right, in any case. And while I commend those who are committed to fight this battle for us in order to preserve some small degree of digital privacy, my point is that the threat to online privacy, important as it is in some respects, is not one we should lose sleep over. There are other, more dangerous threats out there right now–like the defunding of public education, for example. But that’s a topic for another blog.

Squinting through a Scholar’s Eyes

When you give over a large part of your life to studying a certain period, or genre, or art form, it does strange things to you. I’m not talking about personality issues; the ways in which academic life warp and damage would-be scholars’ lives is probably being discussed, this very moment, on a forum in The Chronicle of Higher Education. Rather, I’m referring to the odd ways in which the things you study begin to creep into your normal, everyday life, turning you into a person you’re sometimes embarrassed to be seen with.

A couple of recent cases. Today, a very able and dedicated student gave a fine oral report on Richard III of England in my Shakespeare class. She referred to the Princes in the Tower, and as she did so, this picture popped up in her PowerPoint presentation:

The Princes in the Tower, John Everett Millais, 1878, from Arttattler.com

I have no complaint about its appearance: it’s a great picture of the two little princes, and it belonged in the presentation. No–my problem was with the psychological obstacle to listening that the picture created for me–because as soon as I saw it, I recognized it as a painting by the Pre-Raphaelite artist John Everett Millais, famous for his very lucrative paintings, as well as for stealing the virgin-bride (of seven years!) of John Ruskin.

The truth is, I’m an idiot-savant when it comes to art. I know one period of art, and pretty much one genre, fairly well: because I am a student of Victorian literature, Pre-Raphaelite art is really fascinating for me. What astounds me is that it apparently is fascinating for a number of other people. I profess to have little or no artistic taste; I assume that the Pre-Raphaelites were heavy on good intentions and rather light on judgment and execution of their ideals (although I could easily be wrong about this). But when I see these images pop up again and again, I begin to think that these Victorian artists, like their literary counterparts, may have had a good thing going.

Take, for example, the December 2013 cover of Vogue magazine, which caught eye in the supermarket checkout line:


When I saw this, I stopped, grabbed my husband’s smart phone out of his hands, and quickly searched for an image as he stared at me, open-mouthed, holding a carton of eggs in his hands. “There!” I said, triumphantly, showing him what I’d found. I was rewarded with a moment of satisfaction when he seemed mildly impressed at the Frederic Leighton picture I’d found:

Flaming June, Frederic Leighton, 1895 From http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flaming_June
Flaming June, Frederic Leighton, 1895
From http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flaming_June


There can be no doubt that the Vogue cover artist and photographer had this image of Flaming June (1895) in mind when they designed the cover. But how many of their readers recognized the connection? Presumably very few. Yet I take no small satisfaction in knowing that Victorian art still thrives in our world. It was enough, in fact, to make me buy the only copy of Vogue magazine I’ve ever bought, and it serves as a reminder that my eyes have been permanently changed by a lifetime of literary study.