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    A Doll’s House

    You might have thought that the current economic climate would reorient people toward practicality: a job that satisfies you is still a goal worth pursuing, but the highest priority is earning your way in life and remembering that there’s dignity in all honest labor, even if the work you’re doing at the moment would have not have been your first choice.

    But no. The Saturday Night Fever-era blather that you’re perfectly justified in throwing a fit if your work turns out not to be a Fulfilling Personal Journey and an opportunity for the Real You to blossom is apparently more current than ever, and often in the damnedest contexts.

    Those, like Ann Althouse, who have posted about this column by Sally Quinn—executed with a ’70s-throwback accuracy so flawless as to inspire awe—have understandably focused on the points it raises about marriage. Here’s another part that brought me up short, though:

    Al and Tipper were a team, in it together and in it to win, all the way to the White House.

    Her role as wife of the Congressman, the Senator, the Vice President and the presidential candidate was all-consuming. Then, just as she was about to become First Lady, a role that would give her the clout to make a difference, the Supreme Court handed the presidency to George W. Bush. Al won the election but lost the presidency [I still thank the elements for that, like, weekly, BTW—SRK], a devastating turn of events that sent him into a deep depression.

    Imagine what that must have been like for Tipper. Her entire life had been tied to his career. Suddenly, it was all gone. “Poor Al,” everyone thought. “Is Al OK? How’s Al taking it?” What about Tipper? Not only did she lose her career, but she lost her husband, too, at least emotionally.

    After he came out of his depression, Al’s new career as Nobel Prize-winning environmental activist kept him traveling the globe. His new interests were not hers. Tipper had been the good wife for 40 years. Now it is time for her.

    Indeed? Quinn really wants to argue, in an economy in which millions of people have seen the livelihoods cut out from under them, that we should be feeling sorry for Tipper and Al Gore because not scoring the presidency got them down?

    I mean, just how depressing can it be to be Al Gore? You wander into the Vanderbilt University Divinity School, flunk more than half your classes, and later wander in and out of Vandy Law School without taking a degree, and it’s all sort of okay, because you can just go into the family business. And once there, you rise and rise and rise until it seems inevitable that you and the wife will be in an official position to lord it over your 350 million fellow Americans for at least four years. When it doesn’t happen, I have no doubt it sucks.

    I have no position on whether the Gores should be getting divorced. Maybe Al’s been beating Tipper for years. Maybe Tipper’s been slowly poisoning Al for the inheritance. Maybe Tipper had an affair with the stable boy. Maybe Al had an affair with the stable boy. I can think of few topics about which I’m less curious than the workings of the Gore household, and I am willing to trust their judgment about their own lives.

    What I find odd is that Sally Quinn apparently thinks that “Well, you know, he didn’t get his first-choice job, so of course their shared life went into a tailspin, and now it’s time for each of them to have his own space and learn and grow separately!” requires no elaboration. Did Tipper and Al never turn to each other, while sitting in one of the fifty rooms in their house or while lolling in the back of their car as the driver shuttled them about, and say, “Suppose we don’t actually win the presidency…what’s our Plan B?”

    Politicians are probably the top performers in America when it comes to eliding the fulfillment of personal career ambition with high-minded civic service, but public-school teachers run a close second. A hilarious/appalling story in the NYT yesterday described school administrators who’ve been cheating on assessment tests to avoid running afoul of No Child Left Behind requirements (via Joanne Jacobs). If you’re impervious to nuance, you might think that’s fraud, plain and simple, but you’d be wrong:

    No national data is collected on educator cheating. Experts who consult with school systems estimated that 1 percent to 3 percent of teachers — thousands annually — cross the line between accepted ways of boosting scores, like using old tests to prep students, and actual cheating.

    “Educators feel that their schools’ reputation, their livelihoods, their psychic meaning in life is at stake,” said Robert Schaeffer, public education director for FairTest, a nonprofit group critical of standardized testing. “That ends up pushing more and more of them over the line.”

    Their, uh, “psychic meaning in life”? The phrasing makes my gorge rise a bit, but all right. Maybe it’s not that much different from considering teaching a near-spiritual calling.

    It’s just that Schaeffer is talking about cooking the books to cover your failure to raise your students’ test scores by actually helping them learn something. And to me, that sounds a lot less like “desperately clinging to your psychic meaning in life” than like “defending your income stream and future employability at the expense of owning up to your real performance,” the high-mindedness of which escapes me. I realize that teachers and school administrators are not entirely to blame for their students’ lack of progress; I just dispute that it’s the teachers and school administrators we should be feeling sorry for when their instinct for self-preservation turns them into crooks.

    OTOH, things are a little different when the students are supposed to be grown-ups. The NYT also ran a much-discussed article last month about the crushing debt some college students are incurring. The columnist took a human-interest-feature tack, profiling a woman who was graduated by NYU in 2005:

    Ms. Munna does not want to walk away from her loans in the same way many mortgage holders are. It would be difficult in any event because federal bankruptcy law makes it nearly impossible to discharge student loan debts. But unless she manages to improve her income quickly, she doesn’t have a lot of good options for digging out.

    It is utterly depressing that there are so many people like her facing decades of payments, limited capacity to buy a home and a debt burden that can repel potential life partners. For starters, it’s a shared failure of parenting and loan underwriting.

    But perhaps the biggest share lies with colleges and universities because they have the most knowledge of the financial aid process. And I would argue that they had an obligation to counsel students like Ms. Munna, who got in too far over their heads.

    The balance on Cortney Munna’s loans is about $97,000, including all of her federal loans and her private debt from Sallie Mae and Citibank. What are her options for digging out?

    Her mother can’t help without selling her bed and breakfast, and then she’d have no home. She could take her daughter in, but there aren’t good ways for her to earn a living in Alexandria Bay, in upstate New York.

    Well, yes, colleges do have the most knowledge of the financial aid process, but students and their parents have the most knowledge of their personal finances and plans for the future. Taking out USD100K in debt is risky for anyone, but it might have been an understandable gamble for a student whose plans included a high-demand, lucrative profession. Or who had a rich, doting Aunt Betsy with a bad ticker.

    That’s not the sense you get from her profile, though. If you click through that link to Munna’s mother’s bed and breakfast, you land on this page:

    Fast forward through twenty-five years in San Francisco and Indianapolis, to the 1990s and another loss – that of my beloved husband John. Widowed, with two miraculous daughters and a career as a school teacher, I found myself at another fork in the road. Where did my compass lead me? Back to Alexandria Bay and the recuperative spirit of the Thousand Islands.

    At the age of fifty, I chose to deny my chronological age and become a doctor and I was accepted at a prestigious Upstate New York medical school. Then, while studying for an exam I was hit with yet another loss. My dear friend died suddenly, and the exam prevented me from attending the funeral. Enough of that.

    I knew there was another way I could care for people. I could feed them! And the best place to do that was a Bed and Breakfast. Thus began the transformation of The Captain Visger House, a process I would describe as magical, painstaking, life-changing…and a few other choice words not suitable for print.

    It’s a sweet story, but it makes you wonder whether the elder Munna’s example gave her daughters the impression that you just kind of follow your bliss and expect things to work out. I’m not making light of the pain that the loss of husband and father must have visited on the family; nor am I arguing that giving up a career in medicine to do something less prestigious but closer to your heart is bad. The problem is that “closer to your heart” and “earning enough money to repay a hundred grand” don’t usually intersect, which is why responsible people figure out which one they’re going to compromise on before they’re in deep doo-doo, as Munna Mére phrases it.

    I’m perplexed by the contention that expensive universities are to blame for not telling needy students the cheap state school down the pike might be a better option. Why is it the fiduciary duty of the Viking salesman to suggest that you might be happier with a Kenmore? When I was a student in the early ’90s, those of us on financial aid were required to sit through at least one session explaining how our grants and loans worked—accurately, IIRC—and to meet with our financial aid officer yearly to ensure we were up to speed on what we’d gotten ourselves into. I have no doubt that they could have been more ruthlessly honest about the potential downsides of debt, but my father and I made it our business to crunch the numbers.

    I also made it my business to go early and often to the career planning office, where there was all kinds of stuff about, you know, what sort of work you could expect to get with what sort of degree. My counselor—terrific woman who became a personal friend—warned against failing to consider opportunities in not-so-cool cities that could bear real fruit later on down the career path. She also recommended that those of us in humanities majors take at least a few accounting or math-y classes beyond our distribution requirements, and she warned me very frankly that my comp lit major was unlikely to be marketable in a direct way unless I stuck with the Japanese up to expert level.

    None of this seemed dream-deflating; I was perfectly aware that I was from a family of straitened means, which meant that I was lucky even to be at a private college. Plenty of kids I went to high school with had high-income parents who informed them that they were going to Penn State, which (the parents pointed out accurately) was the best imaginable value for a Commonwealth resident.

    In response to the deluge of comments, many of which make points similar to mine, Munna responds here. To her credit, she does repeat that she’s not looking for a way to weasel out of her loans; but I still get the sense that she considers it an external problem that she’s had difficulty finding employment. One of the more egregious ninnies among her supporters (though this character gives him or her a run for the money) writes this:

    [W]hat this young woman has learned is what a university offers: the tools to understand the world and society. She will do well, even though it’ll be tough paying off those loans. Sure, we need mechanics and sheetrock installers, but we also need those who can Think Big, who can See the Big Picture, and who can make educated and intuitive jumps in logic that will lead to a better country, a better way of living, and better lives for mechanics, sheetrock installers as well as academics.

    One might ask why, if those jumps in logic are so “intuitive,” one needs to spend USD50K a year learning to make them. One might also ask just what Munna has really learned that could enhance the lives of mechanics and sheetrock installers. And if she focused so narrowly on her studies that she was unaware that she was on an express train to insolvency, how much can we really say she learned about seeing “the Big Picture”? Plenty of people find ways to take courses that interest them in college while still being realistic enough to get a degree in something they can make a livelihood out of. Hovering in too much of this discussion is the idea that Munna somehow deserves a job that rewards her for really caring about what she studied. But unless you work for the federal government, you’re going to have to look for a job that produces something of value people are willing to pay for. I’m not sure she’s well served by commenters who encourage her to bide her time until the world comes around to appreciating her. I prefer Erin O’Connor’s take, which is characteristically sensible (though not directly specifically at the NYT story about Munna):

    My line on this is the minimalist one: Don’t take on any debt, ever, that you don’t have to take on. If you can’t afford a private school, then do not enroll in one. There are still affordable publics in this country, and you can even still get a good education at them.

    This is not to say that we don’t need lots and lots of reform, within the student loan industry and within colleges and universities themselves. Student loans have been too easy to get, and they are too hard for too many to pay off. And if you read this blog, you’ve heard me time and time again about the way bureaucratic bloat, excessive executive pay, unnecessary country-clubbish perks, academically lame boutique programs and majors, and so on have pushed costs up way beyond what’s viable–even as they have failed to do anything meaningful for improving actual education. You’ve also heard me over and over again about how we need to rethink the idea that a college degree is the only path to economic success. That’s just dumbing it all down while wasting the considerable talents of people who are not “book smart” but are very smart, talented, and able in other ways.

    But people are getting smarter–and the recession is forcing them to become just a bit more financially literate than they were before. Fewer folks are going to make decisions that they know will harm them financially–and colleges and universities are, I hope, going to have to recalibrate when they struggle to enroll, when diversity falters as a result, and when they are forced to confront their ethical lapses in recruiting students who cannot pay for the product they are selling (we need to be brutally economic in our vocabulary in this instance).

    She’s right: there are many institutional problems, and colleges deserve much of the hot water they’re now in. But the inadvisability of taking on tons of debt without being sure you can shoulder it is not some new phenomenon no one was aware of until the recession hit. Nor is the inadvisability of having no backup plan if your ideal career path doesn’t pan out.

    16 Responses to “A Doll’s House”

    1. Janis Gore says:

      My boy, the sometime country lawyer, says to not offer an opinion about marriages. You can never know what’s going on inside.

    2. Sean says:

      I very much agree. I do think, though, that when either of the principals shows up in front of a microphone to talk about the experience, the right not to have it opined on is immediately waived. That’s not true for either Gore at this point, and I hope things stay that way.

    3. Maria says:

      I’m curious–were you able to achieve expert level in Japanese?

    4. James says:

      I heard that Al Gore was having an affair with a Bush???

    5. Sarah says:

      This is why older son is in state school for undergrad — good state school — despite being able to aspire to more. We decided given uncertain nature of both our employment situations and the fact that we have another son, we could only do so much. And he didn’t want crushing debt. Yeah, it broke our hearts, because he could have done better. But he’s making straight As and hopefully he will reach higher for med school.

      Meawhile, there’s always the lottery or I could become a mega bestseller. But I repeat myself!

    6. Sean says:

      Maria, I doubt any non-native speaker of Japanese ever really feels like an expert. Mine is good enough for my purposes, including, at the moment, a job that involves technical writing in Japanese.

      James, I heard it was with Larry David’s erstwhile wife.

      Sarah, thirty years ago, Paul Fussell was already making the argument that the percent of each cohort in the United States who went to college was actually no higher than that of other countries, if you counted only those who completed programs of genuine university-level academic rigor. I suspect that most schools in state university systems are actually much better on that score than many, many private colleges, which serve up a “collegiate” experience that serves the standard-issue fantasy but doesn’t actually demand much. Older Son is probably better off than he could have been in a lot of places that have, on the surface, more name value.

    7. Leslie says:

      Sally Quinn is a silly woman. Me thinks she’s a bit obsessed with her own tag-along to a “great” man meme. I hear she’s religious to boot.

      As for school districts cheating on tests, I do not agree with that kind of thing, of course, but I’m not really surprised by it because my experience has led me to believe that it’s not the schools per se that are the underlying cause of poor test scores (at least not where I live in Durham, NC, a district filled with Title I kids). It’s the populations they serve. I have a 14-year-old I’m helping to raise with my former partner, and she’s been in public school her whole life and has thrived in it, not just socially but educationwise. It’s because it’s expected of her. There are no familial expectations for most poor-achieving kids, only pity offered by teachers in the name of self-esteem. Grownups no longer rule as they once did, and the schools are charged to serve all kids. There’s very little exercise during the school day (and we wonder why some boys cannot sit still in their seats). Meanwhile, right down the road in Chapel Hill, a town full of professional children, test scores are one of the highest, if not the highest, in the state. People act amazed by this. They can’t figure it out. Mindboggling.

    8. Maria says:

      I would say technical writing in Japanese is definitely a form of expertise. 😉

      I agree, Leslie, that family involvement and expectations are a very important factor in the formula for success. As a graduate student working to become licensed in Special Ed, I know first-hand that it is way too easy for human beings to conceive. But, it will be job security for me…

    9. Rondi says:

      1) I too thank the elements every day for the Supreme Court decision making Bush president.
      2) Glad you are back!

    10. Julie says:

      I’m also glad you’re back!

      I have no comment on the Gores. Really. No comment at all.

      About the student loan issue, though…I went a state school, and I think it was fine. I went in with a very specific plan about what I wanted to do, one that wouldn’t have made paying off student loans eventually very troublesome. But, even at a state school, for me, there was no other way to go to college except get heavily in debt, so the options were pretty much only: Go to college now and take on however much debt it takes, or not go to college. The military was, unfortunately, not an option because of my, um, checkered past. I suppose I could have worked for some amount of time and paid for it without going into debt, but working as a waitress, I suspect it would have taken a very long time to amass that kind of savings. I’m good at academics, so everyone including me just assumed college was what I should do, and then I’d get a good job and so the debt didn’t seem to matter.

      I am not *only* good at academics, though, and now, looking back, I wish someone had told me to just take the years of waiting tables and put off the years studying linguistics because my degrees no longer have any meaning or relevance to my life, yet the debt remains. I don’t regret it, exactly, but I wish I had had the kids first and then gone to school when the kids got older. Of course, without the degree, I wouldn’t have gone to Japan to meet my fabulous husband, and besides, when I was 18, he was only…ah…12…good lord. So, I guess the money was just buying me some time until he got to a respectable age.

      All that is just to say that I think we push too many people to go to college, convince them that it’s the only way they’re ever going to get a good job. It’s really not true. There are so many other ways to make a life for oneself, and many of them don’t cost nearly so much, although many of them also require you to grow up faster than college does.

    11. Sean says:

      Leslie:
      “As for school districts cheating on tests, I do not agree with that kind of thing, of course, but I’m not really surprised by it because my experience has led me to believe that it’s not the schools per se that are the underlying cause of poor test scores (at least not where I live in Durham, NC, a district filled with Title I kids). It’s the populations they serve.”

      I do agree with that, actually. I have no doubt that it’s frustrating to teach kids whose parents are not doing any child-rearing. Even thirty years ago, when I was going through my high-achieving, comfy suburban school district, teachers frequently told me how lucky I was that my parents were so involved. (I think they also liked that my parents trusted the teachers’ judgment, but that was hardly going to be worth pointing out to me.) Under normal circumstances, teachers really can’t do all they’re asked to do in many schools. My issue is with mounting a defense of unambiguous fraud based on the damage low performance does to teachers’ self-esteem.

      Thanks, Rondi!

      Julie:
      “All that is just to say that I think we push too many people to go to college, convince them that it’s the only way they’re ever going to get a good job. It’s really not true. There are so many other ways to make a life for oneself, and many of them don’t cost nearly so much, although many of them also require you to grow up faster than college does.”

      I think wanting a buffer zone between high school and real adulthood is a big factor for a lot of people, actually: you can delay supporting yourself while feeling that you’re making an investment in your earning potential.

      But the major problem, as you note, is the idea that everyone has to go to college or risk working at McDonald’s for life. Defining college so expansively means it’s necessarily watered down. One side effect is that community colleges, which should be able to serve the needs of people in the situation you describe, have little to offer people who are ready to perform at college level but lack funds. They (the community colleges, I mean) are too busy delivering thinly disguised remedial courses to address deficits in high school education.

    12. Maria says:

      What’s really scary, Sean, is the four-year state schools that are feeling compelled to offer remedial courses because so many of their students are coming into college not truly prepared and ready to do college-level work. Moorhead State offered those types of courses even back in the late 80’s when I attended there. I know that currently the University of Minnesota Twin Cities campus also offers remedial courses…

    13. Janis Gore says:

      Now, bypassing others’ marital problems, I do accept “crazed sex poodle” into my personal vocabulary. Don’t quite know where to use it.

    14. Denel says:

      Just had to add my thoughts to the June 18th comment: as a professor at a community college, I find it endlessly frustrating that I’m forced to teach “down” to the level of the class in the sense that there are so many students there that don’t want to be there or don’t belong there (or sometimes, and to their credit, they work full time to pay for being there… but then don’t have time to study)… I feel badly for the students that are there to learn and actually do the work, I’m just not able to give them what they deserve because I’m too busy teaching the rest of the class how to do basic math or write a paper… guess they didn’t have the benefit of our experience in AP English 😉

      The up side is that my biggest class is 30 students, I know all of their names and probably a good deal more about their lives… not at all like my freshmen classes in the Ivy league where we were in a lecture hall with 300 others trying to learn calculus.

      In the end, I’m encouraging my daughters to be hairstylists or plumbers 😉

    15. Sean says:

      Maria, even the Ivies have remedial writing courses—when I started college, you were encouraged to take what was euphemistically called an “interdisciplinary freshman writing seminar,” the real purpose of which was clearly to flush out the entering students who’d never been so much as taught how to write a five-paragraph expository essay.

      Denel, everyone I know who teaches at the college level says similar things. (BTW, when Denel says “our experience,” she means it. She and I went all through high school together.) I don’t know that I ever really minded the huge lectures in and of themselves; if the professor actually knew how to teach, and the TA leading the recitation section spoke English, it seemed like a good balance. When one or both of those didn’t obtain, you were in trouble unless the textbook was exceptionally clear.

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