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Thursday, December 11, 2008

The Error of Intellectual Arrogance

Yes, yes, I realize that the title of this piece seems to conflict with the theme of the rough I threw up a few days ago. No, I’m not schizophrenic. I’m writing my own oppositional argument for the hell of it. I also happen to believe strongly that both sides of the argument presented are simultaneously valid.

A friend of mine, heretofore “R” was not as fortunate as I was when she graduated high school and moved on to college. She was unfortunate on two fronts. On the one hand, her parents didn’t believe in her, and weren’t willing to fund more than one shot at a minimalist college education. On the other hand, R cared more about other people than she ever would about a grade.

People used to joke that R was everyone’s mommy... she’d gather messed up kids around her like a whirlpool and take care of them no matter what they did (to others or to her), and they’d all fall in love with her, every one. She was always willing to cut class, to skip a homework assignment or even skip an exam just to “be there” for someone.

But looking back, almost no one was there for R. It wasn’t anyone’s fault in particular... people tried to be there for R, but everyone’s R was a different R, and so no one really knew what was best for her, and their attempts often collided in a confused mess. R was like an onion. The longer you knew her, the more layers you could peel off, but no matter how many layers you got through, what you were looking at was a layer.

Those who understood her best were those who stopped being offended when she lied to them. One story or another, one version of events or another, one reason or another for whatever she was doing, it didn’t really matter so long as you trusted that her intentions were good. R’s intentions were always good.

She was then (and is now) a brilliant girl, and honestly I think her first attempt at college failed because it bored her. She went to a state college and found herself in a curriculum that wouldn’t have made the honors track in the high school she just graduated from. She almost didn’t graduate, because she was as willing to skip detentions as she was to skip classes, and this had somewhat of an exponential effect on the discipline problem. Fortuitously the disciplinarians of the high school knew her well enough to make allowances.

She took a year and a bit of that mess, made a whole mess of Southern Baptist friends and then dropped. She made a few other forays into the world of education after that, but mostly they ended the same way. The colleges that would have given her what she needed wouldn’t accept her, because she didn’t have the grades from high school or the “extracurricular activities” to make herself look like the prize she was.

In other words, the system screwed her, and in a roundabout way, screwed itself. She’d have been one hell of a basically-anything-you-can-think-of.

Right now, she’s working for a law office doing their payroll and (if I know R) proofreading their cases, doing their paperwork, crunching their accounts information and otherwise rendering the office in question entirely dependent on her presence to maintain functionality.

I guess my point is this. The system looks for specific things, and rewards them. But those things can be (and are) manufactured in kids, or not. Musical instrument? Either your parents started you on one or they didn’t, and (I’ve played the cello since I was three and I teach it now, so you’ll just have to trust me on this one) it probably won’t impact your ability to perform mathematical calculations. But it will impact your chances of getting in. Sports? Clubs? Same deal. GPA? Christ, I graduated with a 4.0 from high school without doing a lick of work and without learning a damn thing. R graduated with something far lower doing exactly the same thing. I went on to a bachelors in History, she went on to an office job.

Trust me, she deserves my degree more than I do.

Incidentally, I graduated from Washington University in St. Louis with a 2.99, and I learned more in my time there than I learned probably in the rest of my education combined. I certainly retained more there than some of my co-majors who graduated with 3.5's and above. I went to college to learn, and I dedicated myself to my classes to exactly the degree possible without them getting in the way of my studies.

My grandfather never got a college degree. An employer at Hughes aircraft happened to be a strong believer in IQ scores, and he hired him despite this lack. My grandfather ( C. H., and I really do hope he’s resting in peace) ended up Vice President for Business and Finance at Duke University. My father tells me he was always self-conscious of the holes in his education... he was self-taught and well-read, but there are advantages to having a hand guide you to the best sources of information and culture. Time spent finding is time not spent reading.

I guess my point is that a university education, while nice, is not in the cards for everyone. People who had other priorities besides primping and priming themselves for the great annual dog-show (applications season) will find their options limited and unappealing. People without financial backing or scholarship assistance just won’t be able to afford it. The single most common reason people don’t make it through college is, in other words, luck.


Which means that in terms of evaluating your value as a human being, whether or not you have a college education should probably not be factored in. What have you done? What are you doing today? Who have you helped, and who have you hurt?

There are so many other ways to measure ourselves against each other that have so much more meaning than our grades and our education level. To most companies, an employee’s education level matters far less than the degree to which they can be trusted. You can teach them to do the job, after all, but you can’t teach someone to give up kleptomania.

So much of it is in how we’re raised. From a very young age I was bombarded by challenges, creative and otherwise. I was offered opportunities for which my parents sacrificed immensely. R had a very different upbringing (she was the left-over consequences of a broken marriage, both of whose halves had remarried with new kids into the equation), and she paid the cost her parents weren’t willing to pay for her.

So the next time you find yourself walking down the street feeling like the world is on your plate, and you pass by someone bitching about the menial, un-fulfilling, redundant job they have to do every day for eight hours because they don’t have your degree...

Feel lucky, not holier-than-thou.

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