Monday, March 23, 2015

Is college necessary? (Part One of 1,000--an ongoing discussion)

In my last post (In the absence of leisure, where is art?), I reinforced the conceit that people who are "cultured" (i.e., read books) go to college. But is college really necessary?

It's an argument--and an essay--that I've tried to work up but haven't completed for a couple of years now, since my son was facing student loan debt for his last year of college (all parental college funds being depleted). Did he really need to finish a history degree that was going to cost him nearly $20K if he was going into the performing arts and didn't have a good (not just minimum wage) job at the ready?

My argument was weakened by the fact that I graduated with a degree in Western Civilization--perhaps one of the more frivolous majors, in terms of making money afterwards and/or in having something to talk about with regular people on the bus. (In my experience, few people outside the university environment have heard of Catullus or want to talk about the Aeneid.) I was so intent on learning that I didn't understand, once it was all over, that the world hadn't changed while I was changing--it was indifferent to my acquisition of knowledge. It merely asked, as it had before: Could I type? Serve food? Clean houses?

One difference is that I didn't have to go into debt to get a degree. Debt seems unavoidable now. Yet colleges continue to churn out the same kind of skills for their humanities majors--reading books and writing papers--that few businesses need and that, unless the graduate wants to be go to graduate school or become a professor, have few real-world applications. And few real-world continuations: how many times have I read Catullus in the original Latin over the years since college? Once? Twice?

Yet how could I deny him the experience that I still maintain (marketability be damned!) changed my life?

So I dropped my not very firm argument and let him take on his own debt. And I think now it was the best decision he could make, despite the fact that he is living at home working part-time as a barista (the best job he could find after searching for several months) and facing a 10-year loan pay-off. He grew intellectually. He made connections. He tried new things. All the things one hopes will happen at college.

Is college necessary for other people? Can you educate yourself and find a way to be intellectually engaged outside a campus? I think so, but that's the subject for a future post. It's a challenge for college graduates as well--how to maintain a level of intellectual curiosity away from a university environment and not get sated with empty cultural calories.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

In the absence of leisure, where is art?

In the second installment of its series on the shrinking middle class (The Devalued American Worker, December 15, 2014), the Washington Post tells the story of Ed Green of Winston-Salem, NC, who works more than 12 hours a day, 60 hours a week, to make ends meet and so that his kids might go to college.

I have met many people like Green in recent months, particularly young people who are working multiple jobs to pay off student loan debt or to eventually, or slowly, go to college. For example, a cashier at a big box hardware store last summer apologized for her slowness, telling me that me that she had been on her feet for eight hours already and she still had another job to go to. She looked to be 18 or 19, and said that she was working three jobs in order to afford college. Even then, she said she only had time and money to take one class at a time and didn't know when she was going to finish her degree.

What does this have to do with "writing and creativity"—the stated intent of this blog?

Without at least some leisure, people are less likely to engage in creative activities or to enjoy the arts. That should concern any writer at this point—the potential audience is shrinking.

Perhaps working class folks have never really been big subscribers of The New Yorker or the symphony, but the chance of that becomes less likely if their free time is only used for sleep. And why would they spend their money on magazines or concerts if any remaining salary can be targeted for their children's tuition?

Why do I care? I was one of the poorest students at the California colleges I went to, there with the help of VA and SS benefits, in addition to summer jobs and a small amount of financial aid. I didn't go skiing or to arena rock concerts or on European adventures, as other students did. Yet I still had time (and money) to go to poetry readings, art museums, and concerts in small venues and to take long bike rides and walks along the beach. I would never have thought that I was privileged by doing any of these things, nor did I feel any guilt at having free time while carrying a full load of classes.

A student rushing to class from work and back to work again is less likely to enjoy the cultural activities offered by her university, or even to go to the library. I am sad if such moments are going to be a luxury except for the rich.

I once went to hear Robert Duncan read his poetry at UC-Santa Cruz. It was a warm enough night, so afterwards my companion and I walked the long path down to the bottom of campus, through the redwoods and the bay laurel trees, past the organic farm. We weren't rushing home to get on to the next thing, but just enjoyed the moment, walking to the rhythm of the poetry we had just heard and savored.

Without those moments of savoring, what chance is there for art?

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

The sameness of contemporary country music

Forget what I said several years ago about liking country music. I finally persuaded E-girl to listen to it on the radio yesterday during a long car ride. We both agreed:


All male singers. Nearly the same melody.  And the same topics:

• trucks and/or Chevys
• pretty girls with jean shorts (sun tans/smiles, etc.)
• drinking cold beer/partying
• a disdain for cell phones (3 out of 5 songs) and foreign cars (2 out of 5 songs)
Everything was cheerful. No angst allowed.

"Make it stop!" E-girl said after the fifth song, putting her hands over her ears. "I can't tell them apart."

Their voices sounded like they like to pop a cold beer now and then--not like they sit at a bar all night downing whiskey and smoking endless cigarettes. They were more akin to pop singers than to Johnny Cash.

Tom Petty has criticized contemporary country music as sounding like "bad rock with fiddle." I actually didn't hear any fiddles or banjos yesterday. It really could have just been generic rock music, the only difference being, instead of complaining about a breakup or sexual frustration (or the usual narcissistic urges of rock music), these songs celebrated the simple pleasures of a rural life and the possibility of seeing/being with a beautiful "girl."

What I liked earlier about country music is that it celebrated monogamy--something rock music isn't too strong on. But now it seems heavily imbued with an almost anxious nostalgia for a rural/idyllic life that hardly exists. A lot of under-65 year-old rural people aren't working on the farm--they are more likely to be sitting in front of a computer all day than behind a forklift. They drive their trucks (or, more likely, SUVs) to a metro area to earn their pay.

The best critique of the sameness of contemporary country music comes in this mashup published by "Cowboy Dave" earlier this year. (I think I heard at least two of these songs yesterday--but maybe not.) Enjoy?