I hate, hate, hate having to go for nearly a week without writing, but I just finished a thirteen-hour day at work. Monday was a sixteen-hour day. Etc. I am a burnt cinder at the moment.
If you are a Theory 1 person, you worry that, with so many Americans going to college, the bachelor’s degree is losing its meaning, and soon it will no longer operate as a reliable marker of productive potential. Increasing public investment in higher education with the goal of college for everyone—in effect, taxpayer-subsidized social promotion—is thwarting the operation of the sorting mechanism. Education is about selection, not inclusion.If you are friendly toward Theory 2, on the other hand, you worry that the competition for slots in top-tier colleges is warping educational priorities. You see academic tulip mania: students and their parents are overvaluing a commodity for which there are cheap and plentiful substitutes. The sticker price at Princeton or Stanford, including room and board, is upward of fifty thousand dollars a year. Public colleges are much less expensive—the average tuition is $7,605—and there are also many less selective private colleges where you can get a good education, and a lot more faculty face time, without having to spend every minute of high school sucking up to your teachers and reformatting your résumé. Education is about personal and intellectual growth, not about winning some race to the top.…It’s possible, though, that the higher education system only looks as if it’s working. The process may be sorting, students may be getting access, and employers may be rewarding, but are people actually learning anything? Two recent books suggest that they are not. They suggest it pretty emphatically.
It looks like I might have a good job lined up. I go for a training session Monday and/or Tuesday morning, and assuming I like it (pretty sure I will) and don’t prove completely incompetent (moderately sure I won’t), I should be able to make the transition pretty smoothly from the end of the newspaper distributorship to this, fingers crossed. I might not have time to write until evenings and nights, but I can deal with that. Best of all, I should be okay financially, possibly even better than I ever expected.
The only thing better than expecting your life to be thrown into chaos and upheaval in the near future is having to sit and wait for two weeks to find out precisely to what extent your life will be thrown into chaos and upheaval in the near future.
In the 1960s, two major shifts transformed the right to happiness into the duty of happiness. The first was a shift in the nature of capitalism, which had long revolved around production and the deferral of gratification, but now focused on making us all good consumers. Working no longer sufficed; buying was also necessary for the industrial machine to run at full capacity. To make this shift possible, an ingenious invention had appeared not long before, first in America in the 1930s and then in Europe in the 1950s: credit. In an earlier time, anyone who wanted to buy a car, some furniture, or a house followed a rule that now seems almost unknown: he waited, setting aside his nickels and dimes. But credit changed everything; frustration became intolerable and satisfaction normal; to do without seemed absurd. We would live well in the present and pay back later. Today, we’re all aware of the excesses that resulted from this system, since the financial meltdown in the United States was the direct consequence of too many people living on credit, to the point of borrowing hundreds of times the real value of their possessions.The second shift was the rise of individualism. Since nothing opposed our fulfillment any longer—neither church nor party nor social class—we became solely responsible for what happened to us. It proved an awesome burden: if I don’t feel happy, I can blame no one but myself. So it was no surprise that a vast number of fulfillment industries arose, ranging from cosmetic surgery to diet pills to innumerable styles of therapy, all promising reconciliation with ourselves and full realization of our potential. “Become your own best friend, learn self-esteem, think positive, dare to live in harmony,” we were told by so many self-help books, though their very number suggested that these were not such easy tasks. The idea of fulfillment, though the successor to a more demanding ethic, became a demand itself. The dominant order no longer condemns us to privation; it offers us paths to self-realization with a kind of maternal solicitude.
We could call them the lower-middle class or the upper-working class, but the better term is the moderately educated middle. They do not have BAs, MBAs, or PhDs. But they are not high-school dropouts either. They might have even achieved some college or training beyond high school. They are not upscale, but they are not poor. They don’t occupy any of the margins, yet they are often overlooked, even though they make up the largest share of the American middle class. In many respects, these high-school graduates are quite similar to their college-educated peers. They work. They pay taxes. They raise children. They take family vacations. But there is one thing that today’s moderately educated men and women, unlike today’s college graduates or yesterday’s high-school graduates, are increasingly less likely to do: get and stay happily married.
“My blog, my blog, why hast thou forsaken me?” Don’t worry, loyal minions, I haven’t. I’ve just been on the road more than usual, working like a pack mule. Plus, I just haven’t seen much inspiring enough to write about when I do have time to make the rounds.
Had Carr looked beyond the neuroscience, he may have found that many of the problems that he blames on the Internet — constant busyness, shrinking attention spans, less and less time for concentration and contemplation — are rooted in the nature of working and living under modern capitalism rather than in information technology or gadgetry per se. In fact, as Pinker correctly points outs, Carr’s are very old complaints.Exhibit A: back in 1881 the prominent New York City physician George Beard published “American Nervousness”, a book about the sudden epidemic of “nervousness” sweeping America, which he blamed, in part on the telegraph and the daily newspaper (the book later proved a great influence on Freud).Exhibit B: in 1891, almost 120 years before The Atlantic published Carr’s “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”, the same magazine ran “Journalism and Literature”, an essay by the polymath William Stillman, where he attacked the cultural change enabled by the telegraph-enabled journalism much in the same vein that Carr attacks the Internet. Stillman complained that “we develop hurry into a deliberate system, skimming of surfaces into a science, the pursuit of novelties and sensations into the normal business of our lives”.The Internet may be amplifying each of these problems, but it surely did not cause them. When the famed sociologist Manuel Castells speaks of the “black holes of information capitalism”, there is as much emphasis on “capitalism” as there is on “information”.
Over 317,000 waiters and waitresses have college degrees (over 8,000 of them have doctoral or professional degrees), along with over 80,000 bartenders, and over 18,000 parking lot attendants. All told, some 17,000,000 Americans with college degrees are doing jobs that the BLS says require less than the skill levels associated with a bachelor’s degree.…Putting issues of student abilities aside, the growing disconnect between labor market realities and the propaganda of higher-education apologists is causing more and more people to graduate and take menial jobs or no job at all. This is even true at the doctoral and professional level—there are 5,057 janitors in the U.S. with Ph.D.’s, other doctorates, or professional degrees.
Most people who kill themselves actually lived better-than-average lives. Suicide rates are higher in nations with higher standards of living than in less prosperous nations; higher in US states with a better quality of life; higher in societies that endorse individual freedoms; higher in areas with better weather; in areas with seasonal change, they are higher during the warmer seasons; and they’re higher among college students that have better grades and parents with higher expectations.Baumeister argues that such idealistic conditions actually heighten suicide risk because they often create unreasonable standards for personal happiness, thereby rendering people more emotionally fragile in response to unexpected setbacks. So, when things get a bit messy, such people, many of whom appear to have led mostly privileged lives, have a harder time coping with failures. “A large body of evidence,” writes the author, “is consistent with the view that suicide is preceded by events that fall short of high standards and expectations, whether produced by past achievements, chronically favorable circumstances, or external demands.” For example, simply being poor isn’t a risk factor for suicide. But going rather suddenly from relative prosperity to poverty has been strongly linked to suicide.