“You know what the greatest tragedy is in the whole world?” said Ginger….“It’s all the people who never find out what it is they’re really good at. It’s all the sons who become blacksmiths because their fathers were blacksmiths. It’s all the people who could be really fantastic flute players who grow old and die without ever seeing a musical instrument….It’s all the people who never get to know what it is they can really be. It’s all the wasted chances.”—“Moving Pictures” by Terry Pratchett
I’m currently in the midst of a six-week professional development workshop designed to make our instruction at LMU more “transparent,” which is kind of a political catch phrase that really means simply demystifying the process of taking a college class, especially for students who have never been to college before and whose parents have never been to college before and who therefore have very little to draw on in terms of understanding the culture and demands of the process.
I happen to think this is an excellent idea. When I first started teaching college writing 20 years ago (at a different university) there was a lot of talk about “gate-keeping,” which basically meant weeding out students who couldn’t handle the academic rigors of a four-year university degree.
Now, I have an undergraduate degree in sociology, and it was pretty easy for me to see how this statistically weeded out one class of students: those with less money. Those with more money were more likely to be the children of college graduates, to have gone to prep schools or affluent high schools with strong college prep programs, to own and be proficient with tools like laptop computers and Blackberries (remember those?), all of which increased their odds of success.
And let’s not underestimate the value of time. Getting a college degree is a full-time job. It’s made immeasurably harder if you have to work for a living just to stay there.
Don’t get me wrong. I had plenty of pampered, wealthy students who flunked out because they partied too much and didn’t study enough, and I had plenty first-generation college students who had enough grit, confidence, and resilience to hang in there until they cracked the code.
I have also encouraged many students over the years to look into trade schools and blue-collar apprenticeships, primarily because they enjoyed that kind of work and did not enjoy the field they were going into just for the money. I cannot count the number of times I have told a student that accountants do, indeed, make good money, but if you hate accounting, you will be a lousy accountant, and you know who does not make good money? Really lousy accountants. The same is true of lousy lawyers, lousy dentists, and lousy auto mechanics (who also, by the way, make really good money).
That is not the same as simply saying “Do what you love, and the money will follow.” I love jigsaw puzzles, but I have so far been unable to find a way to monetize that love. I love to sing, but no one would ever pay me to do it. In fact, I can imagine many situations in which people might pay me NOT to sing. Some things, alas, are purely recreational.
That said, you never can tell. My friend Susan has been working for years on the dream of monetizing her love of shopping, and I have a moderate amount of faith in her ability to accomplish this. I’m pretty sure my friend Dora has managed it. Never underestimate the value of perseverance.
All the same, being a grown-up means tolerating things you don’t especially care for, like middle management and drivers’ license photos and doctors who show news programs in their waiting rooms. Seriously? This is a room full of people who are already scared, worried, sick, or in pain. I don’t care if your news channel of choice is FOXNews, PBS, CNN, or Nickelodeon, news programs in the waiting room scare me to death. Because the only possible excuse for this practice is to minimize medical malpractice suits. They are counting on your being so depressed by the time you get to the exam room that you won’t care if they kill you.
But I digress. I am absolutely certain that no one has ever been successful doing something they hate. Adulthood is a balance. You have to find something you love enough to make up for the all the niggling details that no one loves, and you have to learn to navigate those details, and everyone needs some help in order to do that.
My mother was a first generation college student, and she tells a story in which her professor declared at the end of class, “Tomorrow, we write!” In the secret code of professors who more or less deliberately obscure their practices to weed out students who already feel overwhelmed, this means we are having a test. How would anyone know that if they hadn’t been coached?
I had a professor myself who never announced the dates of exams until the class period immediately preceding the test. He made this out to be a deliberate effort to reward attendance. It wasn’t until I started teaching myself that I realized he just didn’t want to be bound by a course schedule—even one of his own making. The only thing he was deliberately obfuscating was his own lack of planning. At least he was in the right discipline. That was my American National Government professor.
At any rate, I’ve come to respect such efforts to be more inclusive of people who may not have been raised knowing all the secret codes and standards of a particular environment. If an auto mechanic’s daughter wants to be a doctor, we should make that path as available to her as we can.
As someone whose kitchen sink overflowed the morning of Christmas Eve last year, I also have a lot of respect for plumbers, who I happen to know make very good money and perform activities that from my perspective are just as mysterious as open-heart surgery. It’s disgraceful the number of students I’ve seen break down in tears because their genuine desire to enter a blue-collar field is a huge family drama.
And we won’t even talk about how much strength and perseverance it takes to go into the arts. If your real talent and affinity is for music or painting, you had better really love it because you won’t get much support from any corner for that decision. Those theatre majors are tough. I wouldn’t put any achievement past them.
I firmly believe that our role as educators, as parents, frankly as human beings, is to open doors, not guard gates, to make every path available to everyone who has a talent or an affinity for a given field. It’s to minimize the tragedy of all those wasted chances.
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