I am fascinated and horrified by the ads for colleges that appear on subways. If you’ve been to NYC, you’ve seen them. They advertise institutions (we can argue about whether they are really “colleges” or not) no one has ever heard of like Touro and Mercy and something called Grace Institute. (CUNY places ads on the subway too, which is another story.) The ads usually feature a smiling student, someone who is coded as “immigrant” because he or she is olive-skinned or named “Svetlana.”
The ads ALL say something along the lines of “I was in a dead-end job with no future and no education. But [insert name of school] gave me the training I needed to find a new career in [medical assisting/accounting/business administration/hospitality], and now I am providing a better life for my family.” Though the language might differ slightly, every ad makes the same argument: do you have a shitty job or, worse yet, no job? Do you want your kids to be losers like you? No? Then, you’d better take responsibility for yourself and sign up for our classes after which we will give you some crap “degree” or “certificate” that says you can register hotel guests or answer the phone at a doctor’s office. Then everything will be better.
I am not dismissing the difficulty and the talent necessary to perform these kinds of underpaid, low-status jobs. I think Mike Rose is right on that we have a disturbing tendency to think that only white collar workers use their brains and that working-class folks don’t have multiple motives for getting an education.
What’s troubling to me is that these colleges market themselves to working-class and immigrant people who are the most desperate for a decent job. And they’re the least likely to find one, even after they sign up for “college.” And then the ads throw in that whole bit about how you “have to do this for your kids.” Yeah, that’s why you’re poor and your kids go to a shitty school! It’s because you didn’t go to fucking Grace Institute for your degree in Envelope Licking, you poor sad, sack.
The discourse of personal responsibility exemplified in these ads drowns out any honest discussion about how class and inequality shape identity, perception, experience, and, most especially, life outcomes. (I know “discourse” is such an academic word, right? But the point of post academia is not to throw out all the ways of talking about things that we learned in grad school. The point is to use a vocabulary that works, and I think “discourse” is actually a pretty useful term here.) The foundation of the discourse of personal responsibility, which pervades every area of our lives, is this: If your life sucks, it’s your fault. There is no racism; there is no class inequality. There is only you and your sheer laziness and your unwillingness to get a degree from this school that is CALLING YOUR NAME ON THE SUBWAY SO WHY HAVEN’T YOU CALLED THEM ALREADY?
I think Barbara Ehrenreich said it best, even though she was talking about middle-class workers who had found themselves unemployed in the 90’s when everyone was supposed to be riding the gravy train to Budget Surplus Town.
“[T]here was only us, the job seekers” Ehrenrich writes of her experience on the white-collar job market. “It was we who had to change. In milder form, the constant injunction to maintain a winning attitude carries the same message: look inward, not outward; the world is entirely what you will it to be.” (Bait and Switch)
Taking a cue from Ehrenrich, lately I’ve been noticing how the notion of personal responsibility is not limited to ads directed to disaffected workers on the subway. Or, at least, these ads are part of a larger, more dynamic philanthropic discourse that is harder to criticize because it’s so well-meaning.
Just one example: Last week I was in Seattle. While there, I heard a lot about the Gates Foundation and all the awesome work they are doing with Bill Gates’s billions to eradicate disease and hunger around the world. They are also funding lots of educational initiatives too, like Obama’s Race To The Top which I hate (but that’s another story.) I started thinking that, even though I hate Race To The Top, maybe I should look into this Foundation and see if they are hiring! A girl needs a job, after all! The GF website describes all the fantastic work they do and you can hardly help but be moved by their efforts. The tagline on the website says “All Lives Have Equal Value.” YES! I love this. I mean, who wouldn’t agree with this statement? Sign me up!
Then I started noticing other things they were saying about their education policies and I became disillusioned again.
On the Higher Education homepage, the GF says “Our goal is to help double the number of low-income adults who earn a college degree or credential with genuine marketplace value by age 26.” EXCELLENT! I hope they are hiring because I totally want to do that too!
Except . . . wait? Why does this talk of “marketplace value” bug me? Is it because I never, ever considered this during my own college/grad school years and now kind of regret it? Or is it because no one expects students at Harvard (or any elite school) to be concerned with the “market value” of their degrees. They go to Harvard, after all, which is all the market value they’ll ever need.
Then there’s this little nugget:
“As our economy continues to shift, more than half of all new jobs being created require a postsecondary education or advanced training.” Really? I’m confused. I know Tony Carnevale says this, but other reports from the Bureau of Labor Statistics say otherwise. Bottom line: plenty of college educated folks are out of work. How will more college degrees solve this problem? ONCE AGAIN I AM NOT ARGUING THAT WORKING-CLASS PEOPLE SHOULD NOT GO TO COLLEGE. Everyone should go. Of course! Higher education should be free and of excellent quality. The end.
My point is that the link between higher education, “marketability,” and better jobs seems tenuous unless you’re already in the game. And yet we keep hearing people as smart and dedicated as those at the Gates Foundation talk like it’s gospel.
The GF website goes on to assert that there is “only one path out of poverty: a college education. . . . Unless we dramatically increase the number of students who earn a postsecondary degree, it will be difficult for students from all backgrounds to get jobs and attain middle-class lifestyles.”
What? Only one path out of poverty? Only a college degree results in a “middle-class lifestyle”? What about job creation policies? Higher wages? Strong unions? Universal health care? Good primary education for everybody’s kids? Are none of these things important to an anti-poverty agenda? Are they simply impossible to attain if you do not have a college degree?
Maybe they have to say this stuff at GF because what else are they going to say? Capitalism sucks? They are never going to say that on any Bill Gates-sponsored site. So what am I wishing for? What do I want them to say otherwise? This blog, and my next volunteer assignment working with homeless women on “job readiness,” will, hopefully, help me figure it out.