I went to a local megastore to buy a computer hutch for my oldest daughter, and, while I was there, I ran into one of the most talented students I have ever known. She graduated a year ago with a major in English and a minor in information systems. Now she works as a cashier. She wore a red smock and a little plastic nametag with the word "Target" on the bottom.
Pampers, VeggieTales videos, Harry Potter paperbacks, and kitchen utensils designed by Michael Graves rolled by. My former student scanned and bagged the objects as if she was running on a treadmill. She recognized me, and I tried to return her nervous smile. We each asked how the other was doing and said "good." I swiped my card, and she gave me a receipt. There were bored people all around, and the whole conversation was understood in a few embarrassed glances.
"Good to see you," I said, leaving. "Yeah, you too, professor," she said, flatly. I saw her feigned cheerfulness droop a little as she turned to the next customer.
I don't remember walking to my car. I turned on the ignition and sat there, involuntarily thinking about what had just happened.
So what's wrong with being a cashier? The economy is really bad right now. Maybe it's just a stop-gap position until she can find something more appropriate for her talents and training. And, if she stays, maybe her education will allow her to rise to manager, and then, who knows what? Maybe she'll write a novel someday.
Do other professors lie to themselves like this? However I rationalize it, in my gut I feel that it is not right for someone to spend four years and tens of thousands of dollars to end up with the kind of job one could have right out of high school. She had done everything right, all the way up the educational ladder. And there she was, in my spiraling imagination, a refutation of any lingering belief I had in the relationship between merit and job opportunity.
It seems like it's always the top students who realize too late that performance in school does not lead directly to success in the job market. The connected get good jobs, whatever their abilities; the unconnected get the McJobs, whatever their abilities.
I slid into a self-protective, angry slough of sarcasm and defiant bitterness: "Does she embrace the corporate upscale populism of it all? Or, amid the hours of repetitive, mindless drudgery, does she, in her red smock, rehearse the various turns of the Nixon-Khrushchev Kitchen Debate? Does she make snarky, ironic comparisons between her employer's logo and the paintings of Jasper Johns? Does she ponder the significance of the plastic nametag over her heart -- a stylized target? Does she see her job as ground zero in the struggle of her generation?"
I could not tell. I wanted to know that she had not yet been broken, that she was not already a lost soul. "She'll probably be laid off next month over some blip in the stock prices. And then what? Wal-Mart? Sam's Club? Gas-n-Go out on the interstate?" I thumped the steering wheel.
And then I thought about my life during the last 20 years.
Back in the 1980s, I had been an English major with a business minor. I was following the counsel of one of my undergraduate advisers who thought I would have lots of job prospects once I completed my bachelor's degree. Completely lacking in connections, I found myself in the early '90s massively in debt and working through a succession of part-time jobs with no benefits.
My introduction to the business world -- an unpaid internship -- involved answering phones and sorting mail in an advertising agency. Vague promises of a job never led to anything; I was simply replaced by another unpaid intern. My next job was cleaning boats, including the toilets, for a local yacht club. I was paid under the table; it was less than minimum wage plus the occasional tip. ("Hey, Shakespeare, my boat head needs unclogging!")
Then I found a job at NutriSystem, where I counseled overweight people into buying the expensive packaged foods sold by the company. (I was nearly fired for deviating from the script.) Finally, I worked in a health club, where I learned to apply high-pressure sales tactics to casual walk-in customers who just wanted to check the place out.
Meanwhile, I kept in touch with my college teachers. One of them told me I was wasting my talents. I should go to graduate school in the humanities. I would probably get a fellowship; all reports indicated that American universities would be begging for humanities professors in about five years. So I applied; I received offers with financial support attached, and I went back to school.
Ten years later, I emerged with a doctorate from a famous Ivy League university. By that time, I had begun to realize that the promised demand for professors had become a canard. With all the extra grad students and new Ph.D.'s around, there was no longer much need to hire full-time faculty members. After 14 years of higher education, I could work as an adjunct for about $2,000 a course, or I could go home and compete with recent graduates for part-time jobs in retail.
Then, at the very last minute, I got lucky and was offered a tenure-track position. Most of my accumulated classmates seem to have fallen off the face of the earth. Of course, if I had had to go back home and stock shelves at Office Max, I wouldn't be very eager to advertise it either.
So, this chance meeting at the shopping mall was a moment of self-recognition. I suppose it is not impossible, even now, that I might find myself scanning merchandise one day. But in that meeting, there was also a realization that I had become my undergraduate advisers, the ones I resented for so many years for giving me the wrong information about career prospects in the academy.
How many times had I thought of myself as Terry Malloy in On the Waterfront being given "a one-way ticket to Palooka-ville"? I wanted an apology, or something. It got so I could do a good self-mocking imitation of Brando: "It wasn't him, Charley, it was you. ... You was my brother, Charley, you shoulda looked out for me. ... I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am, let's face it. It was you, Charley."
And now it was me. I should have been looking out for her. She came to me for advice. I told her something like this: "A liberal-arts degree is the best preparation for life in general, but it helps if you also have some specific, marketable skills." I had persuaded myself that I knew what I was talking about. I supported and reinforced her choices. And my vanity was gratified by the thought that I was helping her.
Hadn't I learned from my own experiences the folly of giving career advice to young people who are brought up to believe unquestioningly in teachers and education? I thought of Leonard Bast in Howard's End, bereft of his clerk's position and crushed under an avalanche of books, the victim of the well-intentioned Schlegel sisters and their "artistic" notions.
But how could I have known what would happen? How could anyone understand the long-range impact of a conscientious answer to an innocent question? Of offering encouragement and support to a young person trying to figure things out?
It seems obvious now: My undergraduate professors were not malicious. They were not part of some conspiracy to destroy higher education by swelling the ranks of exploitable grad students and adjuncts. They meant well. They could not know what would happen to me any more than I could know what would happen to her.
But I have to return, without irony, to this question: Whatever she does, is my former student not better off for having earned an undergraduate degree in the humanities? Isn't an enriched mental life worth something? Her time will come someday, right?
All I have is an instinctive belief in the value of a liberal education without regard to its practical use. I am increasingly sure that it is wrong to encourage students (and indirectly ourselves) to justify the work and expense of education as a prelude to lucrative career opportunities. Yet I know that when so many students undertake so much debt to go to college, the link between education and future income becomes unavoidable.
It seems inevitable, though we are not yet willing to admit it, that a liberal education is becoming a practical impossibility for most young people. Or liberal education earns the justified reputation of something undertaken at one's peril. Students know they have to make a living before they can appreciate Kierkegaard. They don't have time to question their beliefs; they are too busy getting their academic tickets punched.
I understand that outlook, but students do not seem to know that even the practical choice is fraught with as much risk as following one's heart. They seem unaware of how much their drive for "success" is a construction of consumerist pressures. Perhaps careerist choices carry even more risk, since you ultimately give up what you love for the sake of some opportunity that may not exist by the time you are ready to meet it.
Of course, this kind of pontification can only come from a position of privilege. I can remember all too vividly the fear of sinking into chronic underemployment and relative poverty, of feeling for the rest of my life the special scorn that socially mobile societies reserve for the people who haven't "made it." You're a loser and nobody cares how it happened.
But what can I offer to my students besides the general advice to follow their talents wherever they lead? "Follow your bliss" and "find your vocation." Those remarks seem as banal and unhelpful now as when they were uttered by the wiser advisers of my youth.
Regret by regret, I seem fated to become the professors from whom I once wished to differentiate myself. I wish I could just say, "I have one word for you: plastics." But the future seems empty of obvious opportunities for young people. And I am an adviser without advice.
I looked at my daughter's new computer hutch. I wanted to go back into that store. I'd help my former student find a job. Maybe she could be my research assistant? She could apply to graduate school. I could send her some applications.
I could go on presuming to know what was best for her. That would make me feel better. And then I exhaled, stepped on the gas, and drove away.