Philosophers and Retail: The College Myth

A few weeks ago, I was walking home from work when I met a young gentleman I went to college with. He was a philosophy minor I had met and traded philosophical blows with when I was majoring in that department. I asked him what he was doing nowadays, he shrugged and gave me a sad little sigh. “You know,” he said, “retail.” He seemed so embarrassed, so sad that he could not tell me he was working some exciting job,  making over $100,000 a year.  I remember feeling that way for a little while after I graduated, and it got me thinking.

For as long as I can remember I was told I would go to college. Don’t get me wrong, my parents always said I could do whatever I wanted, but they were of the opinion, that  it just so happened that going to college was the way to get there. They told me I would go to a university somewhere, study something, and at the end of my tenure at school I would have figured out what I wanted to do with my life. Not only that but I would have gained the skill set necessary to do it. This I have since learned is a myth.

At four years old I stood outside my Kindergarten class room, waiting for the bell to ring. I remember thinking “Today I start school. Today I am going to grow up. No more silliness for me, no more laughing for no reason. No more games all the time, sometimes I would have to work.” I sat outside the classroom thinking there would be no time to laugh anymore.  I felt I should use my last moments of freedom to their fullest so I kept trying to remember how to laugh. You ever try to make yourself laugh without having anything funny happen? It is damned difficult.  I tried thinking about something funny, forcing out my laughter. “HAH!” I yelled defiantly. Not the best guffaw but it would have to do.

I sat there feeling the precious seconds tick away, perhaps if I couldn’t make myself laugh then I would do a silly dance…kids do that right? I remember thinking, “This was going to be my last silly dance,” kind of oblivious to the fact that I had never actually done a silly dance before so it was also my first silly dance. All of my dance moves until that point in my life had been very serious. What irony! I was giving up being a kid, without actually ever having been a kid, because kids do silly dances! This thought dawned on me and I almost cried. Man, this kindergarten thing was a total sham. Once I passed through that door I wasn’t going to be allowed to dance silly any longer. I was going to be in school, I was going to have to behave, obey the rules, learn to be an adult. I was going have to do this because I was going to college.

All these years later I laugh at myself because I am still dancing.

To tell you the truth, it wasn’t until college that I realized my treatment had not been special. I, just like everyone else, had been told I would go to college. I had been told, that going there would ensure a good job, a great life, personal growth, and emotional stability.  I got away lucky in many ways. My parents told me I was going to go to college sure, but I met people who had been told what their career path would be since they were in diapers. Parents had literally said, “You, Amy, will be a doctor and make enough money to support us in our old age.”

After college I found something out that was rather disheartening. College doesn’t guarantee diddly squat. I went in, a wrote a lot of papers, drank a lot of energy drinks, became a more learned than the average person on one  particular subject, and then I graduated. During that time I acquired quite a few skills that had nothing to do with my degree. I learned to multitask, I learned to drink alcohol, shortly after I learned to actually enjoy alcohol, and I learned to stay up all night and then go to work the next day. Sadly, I also learned how to be afraid of the first letter of my name and I learned how to genuinely care about what the older privileged white males, that make up the majority of the academic circle, thought about me and my educational performance.

And through all that I kept telling myself it was for a reason. But what did I gain that made me employable? What did I accomplish that secured my future, while single-handedly amassed astronomical amounts of debt? Not a thing, that’s what. Every job I have ever held was due to the fact that I knew someone in the company, that I was charismatic if completely untrained, or that I looked and spoke better than the other guys. Nothing about my education actually opened the door to the jobs I have held, and I am willing to bet there are hundreds, if not thousands, of other LSA majors who are finding out the same thing.

It must be stated that I was an LSA major and can’t speak for other schools. Who knows, engineers or nursing students may have an entirely different experience.

I suppose it is also true, that going to college opened possible avenues of employment for me that never would have otherwise been available. Just like going to Peru would have opened new opportunities as well. It is true that I would probably not be sitting here in my office had I not gone to college. Without having been to college and made the life choices that brought me here I would probably be teaching kung fu at the family martial arts school. Or perhaps I would be the manager at my previous job at the tearoom/coffee shop. Or maybe I would have been the administrator at some other office. In any event my current situation can hardly be traced to the fact that I studied Metaethical Philosophy at the University of Michigan.

You see there is a simple truth about my generation, that we are kind of a joke. Many of us were in a way hoodwinked into thinking that college was the way to success, and in turn the way to happiness. We bit hook, line, and sinker into the college myth. What is the myth you say? Simply put, it goes thusly:

Going to college will more or less get you a job. You will decide what you want to do with your life and you will major in doing that thing. And while you may not write books as an English major, or write philosophy as an ethical philosopher you will be able to get a job above entry-level somewhere.

I would like to take a few minutes to point out that this is in fact a myth. There are two reason in particular as to why this cannot be true.

The first, is something that I like to call collegiate user error. That is we went to college for the single purpose of getting a better job.  Many of us looked at college as if it were something other than an institution of learning. We looked at it as some kind of leveling up achievement.

Dave got college degree + 2 to job worth. Dave used resume, it was super effective.

The goal was not learning something, but rather achieving a status symbol. This status symbol, we believed, would open all of those until-that-moment-invisible closed doors of fiscal stability. When no doors opened we were confused.

The second problem  of the college myth is so damn many of us go to college, that college is the new high school. It used to be that graduating from high school would be enough to get a decent paying job. But with all we college graduates flooding the market high school grads are pretty much are S.O.L. In this day and age dropping out of your masters program will give you just enough credibility to become an assistant manager at a fast food chain.

Don’t get me wrong ‘University’ is still a place of intellectually elite, and driven individuals who have more in common with Einstein than with me. And they will be the top 10 percentile of university graduates. But the rest of us 90-percent-ers really look about the same to any old office employer. Nothing we did really makes us stand out from the rest of the herd at least not for us who did not decide to go into academia.

Many of us had no interest in being the top of the class, we could get A’s and B’s without working all that hard and as long as we were not planning on going to grad school it wouldn’t really matter. We were still banking on the notion that we would end up with a job anyway. You see, my generation is that of the lackadaisical paper writer, that of the bored office administrator. We mumble lines and fudge details because that is what college taught us. We are a generation with one hand pressed to our ears, instead of one hand pressed down to a page. And after college we sit in coffee shops and drink our great plans away as easily as we do our non-fat sugar-free vanilla chai-tea lattes. We just kind of wait for that job. And because of this you buy your clothing from art history majors. You get handed a latte in the morning by a German-deconstructionist philosopher. You buy donuts from an independent bakery run by a multi-degreed linguist and a feminist history major. We are a generation of overqualified waitresses and underpaid barista’s.

This is the part where most people complain that college is a sham, a joke that is retold by every generation without ever getting a laugh. That there really is no reason to go to college. And that it is just a way to perpetuate academic inflation and, socio-educational elitism. “Not so!” says I. After all, isn’t that what we have been striving for, the chance for all kids to go to college. Haven’t we always asserted that  all people, from stock boy to realty broker, would benefit on a personal level by having a higher education. And I think we all agree this is still the case. It’s just that an interesting and unforeseen side effect has occurred. Namely,  the market is flooded with over qualified individuals who all have been promised their dream job. And while this is unfortunate, it really is not the fault of the institution of academia. It didn’t say in any of my college recruitment letters, “Come on down, Dave, cause after all your pain and toil you’ll totally have a job!”

So how does one destroy the college myth? They wake up from their musings of tomorrow and realize what college’s uses are. Personally, I think college was great. It was fun, it was enlightening, and it taught me much. But it did not give me a job, nor ensure my success. College should be seen as a place for personal growth, and personally driven education. It should be undertaken by those who simply want to learn more, those who are willing to work hard enough to be in that top 10%, and for those who can flat-out afford it. And perhaps no one else.

There is one thing that the institution could do for us that would help take down the myth, though they have no obligation to. They could tone down the academic inflation ever so much, so that those of us who do want to learn for learning’s sake can afford to do so without selling a kidney. Just a thought.

About bishopdavi

Dave Ambrose was born in the greater Detroit area and since birth he has developed a wide and varied grouping of skills that has labeled him damn near unemployable. He is a 3rd generation Bruce Lee student who studied martial arts for the last 19 years under his father, Rocco Ambrose, the inheritor of the Wing Chun Do, kung fu system. In the summer of 2010 he achieved the highest rank available in the Wing Chun Do fighting style and am now becoming certified as an instructor so that he may pass his knowledge on to some equally unemployable youth one day. His martial training brought him the opportunity to be a stunt man/choreographer on two independent/student films (both of which were killed in production). At 16 years old he caught the traveling bug and spent the summer in France living in Paris, the south central countryside, and the Mediterranean where he developed an appreciation for red wine, and learned to speak French. He attended college at the University of Michigan where he promptly dropped out of the business school and devoted his mind to philosophy. So obsessed was he that instead of getting a second degree or a minor he took enough philosophy classes to get the equivalent of two degrees. He achieved a Bachelor’s in Arts in Philosophy in the summer of 2009. During his undergraduate career he worked as a writer, artist, muse, and eventual distribution manager for the Gargoyle, the university’s official humor magazine. Current he works as an office administrator in a realty firm in downtown Chicago.
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5 Responses to Philosophers and Retail: The College Myth

  1. kennedygire says:

    Well written, good sir. My own experience points me in the same direction; of my last two jobs, the first one I netted for being able to talk and being charismatic, and the second from knowing someone. I feel that in a way, LSA grads do feel slight shame when it comes to not getting those jobs that are so coveted. But I feel that we are given a greater advantage over many other professions, in that we are presented with the ability to objectionably think and present arguments, much like yourself did here. Does that get me a better job? Maybe. It didn’t for these last few and forced me to actually go to Peru (nice mention, BTW) for some semblance of what one may call ‘work.’ But hopefully that kind of thinking they encourage in our studies helps in some fashion. But hell, lowering tuition for us learner-types wouldn’t hurt either. Well said.

  2. Jim Anderson says:

    I enjoyed reading that, David.
    The strategy I gave to Nick about college was to go to community college for cheap tuition until he figures out what he wants to do, then shell out the big bucks if necessary. So now he’s a junior, torn between a Chinese Language major and computer programming, but he doesn’t owe any money yet.

  3. Ellie Belen says:

    Nice job. (ha, get it?)
    It certainly doesn’t help that you graduated in a major recession and competition for positions that traditionally go to college graduates are also coming from people twice your age as well. That being said, the college myth is real. I think that’s why my husband jokes with students in certain majors to remember the following line, “Would you like fries with that?”

  4. Ella bean says:

    The problem isn’t college, it is your degree. What did you think a philosophy degree would get you and how did you compare that to engineering or nursing. This post makes me think of a joke, the science major asks what does it do, the engineering major asks how we make it do it, the philosophy major asks would you like fries with that. Your parents/advisors should have went over the actual life prospects of your education. That you are surprised isbtheir failing.

    • bishopdavi says:

      Huzzah my first troll! I was wondering when you would appear. I give to you the honor of being bestowed on my wall.

      I got a three pointer on my first time and everything. This one comes complete with misspelling, the questioning of my life choices, the inference that my parents somehow were negligent.

      Cheers and happy trolling to you.

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