Saturday, March 23, 2002

Life Lessons

My hometown newspaper printed an essay by recent Yale graduate Shawna Gale. The readers at Romenesco's MediaNews had plenty to say about it (as did the readers at, as did Moira Breen, Alice in TV Land and Neal Boortz), but somehow I can't resist taking my own shot.
Even a Yale pedigree could leave one unemployed

I worked hard in junior high. I worked harder in high school.

I took home more straight A report cards than any kid in my class. I scored just shy of 1400 on my SATs.
1310 here, not far behind you. And I did it in the days before they recalibrated the scale.
I rode horses. I played tennis and basketball. I taught English as a second language.

I had no social life until I was 17.
How strange. Did you corral a wild horse? Did you play tennis and basketball alone? Did you teach English to an empty room? How could you possibly have done any of these things without interacting with other human beings?

Oh, I see. Those were not social activities. Those were merely boxes on a checklist, variables in an equation that was supposed to solve for some value for U greater than $100K/year. (That was a math joke, y'see... Never mind.)
But I got into Yale. Then I worked harder than I ever had.
You didn't say who paid for it. I'll draw no conclusions. If you earned the money yourself, congratulations. If your parents paid for it, tell them you love them.
I was sure the payoff would be a multitude of attractive, not to mention lucrative, job offers upon graduation. Then the bottom dropped out of the economy.

So far, my Yale degree has secured me an e-mail forwarding address and a lifetime of alumni dues notices. Not exactly what I expected.

I was an English major which, for most people, roughly translates into "I have no marketable skills." But that's not so. I have many valuable skills honed during my days with Dickens, my nights with Nabokov, those wee hours with Woolf.

First of all, you know I can read. And I don't mean read like "Hooked on Phonics" read. I can read long, wordy, small printed works with relative speed and what's more, I can remember what I have read and write long, wordy, papers about it without any trouble. I have developed impressive analytical skills. I am trained to think -- really think -- about everything I read. And I am accomplished at putting those thoughts on paper.
Surely someone who can read -- and not merely read, but read "wordy, small printed works" (like the back of a cereal box?) -- knows the difference between "valuable skills" and "marketable skills." Your confusion of the two, therefore, puzzles me, unless you are angling for a political career. I can't think in what other position the ability to deliberately obfuscate might be a "valuable skill". Law, perhaps.

I was similarly puzzled by the "impressive analytical skills" that nonetheless do not equip you to cope in a competitive world, the nature of which you might have deduced had you applied those skills to ongoing reports in any daily newspaper. I was puzzled, until I realized that the ability to analyze wordy works and put thoughts on paper about them does not translate into the ability to understand those wordy works, or the world they attempt to describe.

At what point did you decide what kind of work you wanted to do for a living? You neglected to mention it. And which of your faculty advisors told you that a major in English was the way to accomplish it? If I were looking for the point where It All Went Wrong, I'd start there.
So where does that all leave me? Unemployed.
You are spectacularly well qualified to teach English. It should be relatively short work for you to satisfy certification requirements: You could be in a classroom by September.
I have taken that Yale degree to marketing firms, publishing companies, advertising agencies, and it has not worked any magic. If I leave the degree behind, I am hired on the spot to wait tables for $10 to $20 an hour depending on tips (and since I have well-developed public relations skills from that internship with the Commission on Human Rights, I will get closer to $20 an hour).

Erase Yale from my past and with little trouble I land a retail position helping rich ladies whose most prized degree is their "Mrs." find handbags to match the only type of investment they know how to make: shoes. Take that degree off my wall and I easily obtain a position at a local Starbucks, serving up nonfat lattes to busy professionals and harried college kids who don't know that the degree they are currently working their butts off for will be worth less than their stainless steel coffee mugs.

So I can earn $0 an hour not working at a marketing firm with my Yale degree, or potentially earn a couple of hundred bucks a night serving up fajitas at Chili's.

I can forfeit a paycheck while not employed with a publishing company, or I can earn seven bucks an hour plus commission folding sweaters at that boutique down the street. I can be broke while the ad agencies keep sending me letters beginning with, "Thank you for submitting your r�sum�. . . ," but you get the picture.
Oh, yeah, I get the picture. Despite everything you're learning about the real-world market value of a degree in English from Yale, you still believe that Yale is right, the rest of the world is wrong, and anyone who can't see that obvious fact is not worth your valuable time.

Find the person at Yale who promised you a cushy job when you graduated and sue. I wouldn't give you such loony advice if I weren't fairly confident that nobody made any such promise. But really, that's the only response your education has prepared you to make.

It is in Yale's -- any college's -- financial interest to keep you in school and continue paying tuition. Whether you're qualified for a job when you leave doesn't affect them at all. Perhaps you've seen those late-night commercials for training institutes promising you a lucrative future in dental hygiene. Compare and contrast with Yale's recruitment brochures.
Will someone please tell me where I went wrong?
Well, here are some suggestions:

Whoever told you that working for a living was beneath you didn't do you any favors.

You can shop your resume in the daytime while slinging fajitas at night, you know. I daresay most of the the waitstaff at my local Chili's are not working their way up the ranks to deputy assistant shift supervisor -- they're just paying the bills.

You have spent the last seventeen years (I'm assuming kindergarten through grade twelve, plus four years of college) being told that school will prepare you for Life. Unfortunately, that's true, but you don't get the biggest lessons until after you graduate:

School is not like Real Life. Education doesn't end when you get your diploma. Now that you're safely away from the halls of ivy, you can start learning something useful. You've just completed the "theoretical" portion of your life's lessons. Now it's time to start on the "practical". If all goes well, this phase lasts the rest of your life.

Education is the key to your future. However, sometimes the future doesn't drive a BMW. Try that key in a second-hand Chevrolet.

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