Walk

“Push button to walk across street.” What could be more clear? Res ipsa loquitor. Latin for "duh." The thing speaks for itself. What other possible interpretation could there be? You push the button; the light turns red; the traffic stops. You walk across the street. What else is there to talk about?
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But hold your proverbial horses. The sign does not explicitly state, “If you push the button, the light will turn red and the traffic will stop.” Indeed, pushing the button may have some other function. Maybe pushing the button does not cause the traffic signal to turn red. Maybe pushing the button doesn’t stop traffic at all. Maybe pushing the button uploads your fingerprint to be sold to Cambridge Analytica. But probably not. Pushing the button has something to do with the traffic light.
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It turns out that at certain intersections at certain times of day during, pushing the button does cause the light to change. At other intersections, pushing the button is as causal as repeatedly writing “Mrs. Peggy Williams” in your high school binder will cause that cute Williams boy to ask you to marry him. Sometimes pushing the button does not do what you think it does. Sometimes pushing the button causes the crossing time to be longer—not a bad thing. Pushing the button doesn’t cause the light to change but does give you more time to cross the street when the light finally does change. Who knew?
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Similarly, if you think the purpose of going to college is to find a job, you may be brutally disappointed. At its best, college provides interaction with sparkling professors, connection with engaging classmates, exposure to the exquisite insights of civilization, the chance to sharpen abilities, as well as Frisbees and pizza. A liberal arts education is not about finding a job. A liberal arts education is about learning.
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Which brings us to our conversation about arithmetic. High school seniors are now considering their financial aid offers. Many families are “gapped.” Families who can pay $30,000 are asked to pay $40,000. These families are not buying big screen TVs every 20 minutes and eating sushi eight days a week. They are being presented with untenable choices.
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Nick has been admitted to Quinnipiac, a wonderful university in Connecticut. Quinnipiac has offered Nick a significant tuition discount—$35K off the sticker price—but Andres will still have to borrow $25,000 each year. Upon graduation, he will have $100,000 of debt. It is unlikely that he will earn $100,000 a year with a degree in broadcast journalism. He will not be able to pay back the $100,000 before the next ice age. The debt will be an albatross.
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Andrea is considering quitting her $45,000 a year waitressing job to spend three years earning  a PhD in nursing at Columbia. Columbia did not offer Andrea any aid. Andrea would be graduated with $210,000 of debt. Even if she could find a zero percent loan and with a salary of $90,000 a year, she can look forward to 20 years of financial horror: she will be brutalized by payments; she will have to take the job that pays the most rather than the job that is most fulfilling; she can not buy a home; she can not start a family; and she can darn sure not save for retirement. The institutions offering her this ponderous loan are marginally morally preferable to the tobacco industry and crystal meth dealers. Marginally. Andrea would be better served by taking courses at a state school with lower tuition. For Andrea, the big-name, Ivy League school is a scam.
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No one is a bigger proponent of the glories of an undergraduate liberal arts education than this author. My own children have studied literature, history, and visual arts. But I am also in favor of nice clothes, good food, and pleasant vacations. If these luxuries are affordable. To borrow more money then you can expect to pay back in 10 years after graduation is a tragic mistake. You might as well just walk out into traffic.
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One thought on “Walk

  1. Martin

    Ack! Help! I thought this blog was going to tell us in simple, clear direct, orderly fashion how to raise our children so they and we can succeed in life. What happened? My take-away: don’t start life saddled with big debt. Horrid to think even of a debt that will take 10 years to pay off, at a time when you might be exploring the world and wanting to find what you really want to do and with whom.

    By pure coincidence, I just answered a (marginally) related question on Quora: “What can you do with a master’s degree in comparative literature?” I offer you my answer here:

    “It is absolutely true that a Master’s degree in Comparative Literature is not a license for a particular job. Others have noted that it may be a step on the way to a PhD, but even that accomplishment and hard-won honor is scarcely a marketable commodity. The number of jobs for professors of comparative literature is small. There are other, more direct, routes to becoming a translator or a linguistics expert or a teacher of modern languages or of e.g. English as a Second Language (ESL) or to work in a language school. Nor is the degree needed in order to become a successful novelist or poet.

    “Study of comparative literature is part of the Humanities. One important virtue of study in the Humanities is not what you do, but who you are able to become. You will have learned to be at least somewhat fluent in two or more languages, and not in the sense of being able to be a tourist or to show off. You will have learned not just to read literature in those languages but to understand something of the history of the languages and the literature. You will have learned to think more or less deeply in two or more cultures. And once you can do two, and compare them, i.e. pay attention to the similarities and real differences, you have the tools to add a third or fourth.

    “In this way, doing comparative literature is similar to doing anthropology. Well, you might ask, what is the value of that? It means that you understand and have a feel for, how the way people think and see the world is contingent: the world is not a given. People see things differently, really differently. So much that to an extent they actually live in different worlds. Once you become proficient in “seeing” into how that is true not just in a philosophical sense but in the practice of life you have “insight” that opens up many opportunities. But you have to make those opportunities yourself, using an advantage that most people do not have and can not see. What you learn on the way to to getting the degree can enable success in many endeavors. The degree itself is not a passport to a job, much less a ticket to a career.”

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