The paradoxes of higher education

We went to a grad party today, the grad party of my mother’s friend’s daughter, because my mother is the most popular person I know. While I have no desire to be popular myself (I prefer my hermit-y existence) it sometimes strikes me that my mother has far more friends than I do. She has a million friends (this is not an exaggeration). Sometimes it feels like everyone knows of her, and when I meet them I am frequently to referred as “her daughter” rather than by my own name. We can’t take her anywhere without her finding one or the other person who she knows, has heard of, or who has heard of her. And all of these friends have children, and somehow all of them are graduating from high school this year.

Basically, the moral of the story is this: the more friends and acquaintances you have, the more grad parties you are invited to.

Grad parties are weird for me because while I love academia, learning, and education, somewhere along the way I fell out of love with the American college system. Sometimes, as I’m talking to a recent graduate full of enthusiasm and optimism, I want to grab them by the shoulders, and give them a shake as I yell “IT’S TOO LATE FOR ME BUT SAVE YOURSELF! RUUUUUUUUUNNNNNNNNNNN!!!!!!!!!”

Thus far, I’ve managed to restrain myself.

It’s all a racket, really – everyone is convinced that a lack of college degree is the surest way to poverty, and dig themselves into trenches of debt to achieve this degree. If this doesn’t feel counterintuitive to you, read it again slowly. Of course, the idea is that you’ll be getting a return on your investment, but the fact is that college fees have increased dramatically, while beginning salaries have decreased, and our investment is worth less than it would have been in decades past.

Added to that is a situation where everyone who’s hiring is searching for people with degrees, so now undergraduate degrees are so ubiquitous you really need a Masters or some sort of further study to distinguish yourself from all the other unemployed hopefuls. If this feels silly to you, you are hardly the only one.

If I had any other skills at all – even something like tap-dancing, or fly fishing – I would have quit this “education” bit by now and joined something that’s more likely to give me decent returns on my investment. But I have very few marketable skills other than writing and communication, and employers seem to be looking for something more than a typist/storyteller/soap box enthusiast. In addition to that, I’m in a family where education and knowledge are valued, and in our society today, you need a certificate or diploma to prove that you have these things. And also, I want to have knowledge, and I want other people to know I have it, so really I’ve pretty much screwed myself over there.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that I understand that it’s a system. I can see the way it works, and it enrages me that it’s like this. I desperately want things to change. But at the same time, it’s a system that I find myself reluctant to leave. So I stay in it, taking graduate school exams and sending out applications for higher education opportunities.

And every time I attend a grad party, I smile with all my teeth and express my sincerest congratulations, ruthlessly squashing down my own disillusionment.

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