On Education as Investment

Image: Jeswin Thomas/Unsplash 

When I was leaving high school, I knew why I was going to college: I wanted to get a good job. In spite of Kanye West’s The College Dropout, it was an assumption consistent with the one my parents had. Their generation either worked with a college degree, or without. I hadn’t yet realized that in my generation, software had eaten the world and was quickly digesting it. The API had, quickly and quietly, replaced the college degree and already started splitting my generation into two classes—those who told the APIs what to do, or those who were told by the APIs what to do. But with an outdated set of facts and general risk aversion, I wouldn’t know that for years.

Naturally, the transactional nature of my education—and many others—put an expectation of return on it: money was the motivation. At the end of my first year, I switched out of the media program I was accepted into, transitioning into one of the school’s two business programs (first in the finance stream, then in the newly-introduced consumer behavior stream).

Education came with an expectation of a return on investment. (Apparently I was ahead of my time.) At the time, I figured I’d need this degree to get me a good job, so that I could live independently from my family at least. Maybe to start my own one day. I didn’t know. I made a simple, calculated, decision to go into marketing because the field was reliable and required at least a bit of creativity. I didn’t know for which company, I didn’t know what agencies existed, I just knew it was a possibility.

The demand that I put on my education already made most liberal arts classes seem frivolous; they would be functionally useful as “bird courses,” an elective class that would pull up my average. When a semester in my evening religious studies class did the opposite, I realized I couldn’t afford that amount of risk either. I wouldn’t have been able to articulate all of this; if you’d talked to me, I’d have sounded like the lo-fi version of someone using financial language to describe their approach to education

(Note: I realize that there’s a narrative around liberal arts in tech, but having worked with tech companies for years, I’d still say that the demand for programming skillsets is much higher, on average, than demand for people just with liberal arts degrees.)

Needless to say, even with what I realized were relatively low stakes, I understood and experienced the pressure that came with education. All of it came rushing back when I read Nicholas Hune-Brown’s article at The Walrus covering international students:

The family’s biggest investment by far was Kushandeep. Most of the kids in his village learned while sitting on the floor of the local government school, but Kushandeep’s father insisted on sending him to the nearest city, Patiala, to attend a private school with basketball courts and a cricket pitch and instruction in English. “My father never compromised on my education,” says Kushandeep. The tuition alone cost almost a third of the family’s income.

It drew to mind poet Cathy Park Hong’s incisive realization of herself, as she was sitting in a nail salon. She writes in Minor Feelings, “I was so privileged I was acquiring the most useless graduate degree imaginable. What did I know about being a Vietnamese teenage boy who spent all his free hours working at a nail salon? I knew nothing.”

Barbara Ehrenreich writes in Fear of Falling

“The ‘capital’ belonging to the middle class is far more evanescent than wealth, and must be renewed in each individual through fresh effort and commitment. In this class, no one escapes the requirements of self-discipline and self-directed labor; they are visited, in each generation, upon the young as they were upon the parents.” 

I didn’t realize that Ehrenreich’s point could be seen from a point of luxury: there is a class in which fresh effort and commitment are barely enough to even scrape by, as with Kushandeep’s story of his parents working the farm. I could definitely relate more to Anna Wiener’s summary in Uncanny Valley of her time working in publishing:

I was very broke. Not poor, never poor. Privileged and downwardly mobile. Like many of my peers, I could afford to work in publishing because I had a safety net. I had graduated college debt-free, by no accomplishment of my own: my parents and grandparents had saved for my tuition since I was a blur on the sonogram. I had no dependents. I had secret, minor credit-card debt, but I did not want to ask for help. Borrowing money to make rent, or pay off a medical bill, or even, in a fit of misguided aspiration, buy my own wrap dress, always felt like a multifront failure. I was ashamed that I couldn’t support myself, and ashamed that my generous, forgiving parents were effectively subsidizing a successful literary agency. I had one year left on their health insurance. The situation was not sustainable. I was not sustainable.

There was a cliché that I heard in college, that the safest path was the biggest risk. I understood where it came from, of course, but I didn’t feel like I could afford to not be sustainable. So I would do my best to do both. For example, even when I worked at Lifehacker, I also ran my editorial studio Wonder Shuttle. (Here’s a very cleaned up snapshot of what the situation looked like.) It was probably the sense of shame that I felt—how easy my journey was compared to my parents’—that I couldn’t bring myself to go all-in on the risk. 

For the most part, the success stories in publishing and authoring ring much louder and farther than the failures, despite there likely being many more failures than successes. The financialization rears its ugly head again: simply put, the supply just outstripped demand. Here it is in the words of a journalist who loathes themselves for all but getting hired by BuzzFeed:

“I wish I never discovered a career in media. All it got me was a some shitty, cockroach-infested apartment that’s no bigger than a fucking broom closet and an always-increasing pageview quota. Here’s some #AdviceforYoungJournalists: Run.”

All of this makes me think about the transactional nature that pulls us into our lives and work. It’s tough to be a human, when by osmosis we learn that we are our own best—or sometimes our only—capitalist instrument.

Instruments help us make music, tools help us fix things, formulas help us solve problems. But we aren’t instruments. We’re human beings. Nor is time merely an instrument, something for us to make use of; we are time. 

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