It still remains true, especially for men, that we are valued primarily for what we earn.
The sign has obvious function in a pub. The bar projects blue-collar bravado, and the sign, along with others of similar tone, adds to an atmosphere that’s both whimsical and rugged. It can help to shut up a drunk blowhard—in fact, it often works as a deterrent.
However, I often imagine this sign outside the context of the bar. I imagine it hanging everywhere, in every work place and on the door of every business. It’s a question that floats between all the lines of American life even if we pretend it doesn’t. And it affects college students dramatically.
Many Americans, myself included, carry around a sense of shame, at least subconsciously, for earning less than we might or should. I feel it still remains true, especially for men, that we are valued primarily for what we earn. And while our opinions or ideas on their own might be brilliant, they are far more interesting when it’s obvious we are also wealthy, or so we perceive.
I feel this notion is silently damaging to men, and I have heard as much from students here at the community college where I teach.
Young women who’ve yet to have children very often tell me they come to college to be able to support themselves, to be “independent” (I critique that notion of independence here.). It’s true that young men come to college to be able to move out of their parents’ homes. But many guys also say they come to college to gain overall value, to become more attractive to women by virtue of wealth, and to be able to provide for a family.
I teach the underclasses. Yes, I’ve had students (of both genders, mind you) who simply want to dick around for a while, or who come to college because some high school counselor said they should. Those people aside, the majority of students have social mobility in mind when they take community college classes.
I have lost count of all the times a young man has asked me which major ends up paying the best, and how often they’ll assume that “business” leads to better paying jobs than would engineering or math.
It’s interesting that young women rarely ask the question as bluntly. They’ll want to know if all nurses make the same starting salary, or they’ll wonder what they need to do to land a teaching job in a “rich neighborhood”. Without doubt, experiences in school and society have steered such women toward the nursing and teaching professions; on rarer but still consistent occasion they’ll study things like accounting or office management.
But the guys won’t have any major in mind. I don’t care what I take so long as it pays me the most money. (For the record, I avoid telling them anything about any particular course. Instead I ask them to tell me what lifestyle they consider a wealthy one and what they can see themselves doing on a daily basis for years at at time.)
It should be obvious how damaging and limiting their kind of attitude is. Besides the self-fulfilling prophesy—if you don’t want to be treated like a human ATM, you should not aspire to become one—this point of view keeps young men from success, at least when success is defined as enjoyment of one’s daily work and the capacity to perform with skill. We generally do better at things we find engaging. Motivating people by dangling high salaries—the need for high salaries—keeps them from exploring their potential talents. They automatically reject about half of the courses of study. This dilutes the diversity and complexity of our society.
A lot of women fail out of our nursing program—this past semester, the numbers were staggering—when they realize nursing is not glorified babysitting of sick people. (Interestingly, the few men who enter nursing tend to do very well.) But the numbers are not as bad as the amount of men who fail out of our various technical programs.
Sometimes they simply cannot meet basic language and math requirements and would fail no matter what they studied. But very often they’re simply not interested in IT or Business, and they can’t find the energy to pretend to be. They enter the fields assuming they’ll be easy because high school was easy. Classes are just hoops; the professor will pass them because every teacher before has always passed them. The irony is tragic: these young men are trying to become rich instead of gaining an education or a proficiency, and they fail to see the relationship between wealth, discipline, focus and professional skill.
It’s difficult to blame them for trying to “become rich”. We live in a culture that values profit above all else. “Yeah, sure, we ripped them off, but we made a lot of money.” As an end, profit now justifies all methods and models.
Near the top of the list of profit-hungry loons are colleges themselves who’ve milked the loan system to increase their own revenues. In the process, they’ve priced entire sections of society out, and their cost makes it difficult for students to rationalize the pursuit of passions or curiosities. How can someone be expected to read great books or study history when there’s no real profit in it, and when college requires going into at least some debt.
I wish we could get to the point where a bar might hang up a sign reading If you’re so smart, why aren’t you happy? But we’re far from that, and we continue to put pressure on men to value themselves not as members of society but as powerful lords capable of affording anything they or their loved ones might desire. We’d go a long way toward teaching men to see the humanity before them, the society and network of relationships around them, if we could get them to see themselves as valuable for how they think and feel, not simply what materials they can gain or mini-empires they can build. Of course, there’s a way to do it, but that way does not present obvious financial profit.
In my classes, most men do not focus on cultivating their emotional health and intellectual capacity. They focus primarily or even entirely on earning money. Ironically, the college focuses on the same thing. In the process, a majority of students end up failing and thereby prolonging a cycle of poverty, sending another generation of students to a college that will happily collect their tuition.
Photo by vxla.
True Community runs each Wednesday. Gint Aras explores his experiences as an instructor in a community college that serves a lower-middle to lower class district in Chicagoland.
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