Quantitative metrics and the Vietnam War

Higher ed and tiny beautiful things

411bJ++UXUL._AC_US436_QL65_I recently finished reading "Tiny beautiful things" by Cheryl Strayed (of Wild fame, both the book and the movie with Reese Witherspoon), which is a collection of columns she wrote as answers to questions readers sent her, and for this post I wanted to write about the one titled "We are all savage insides." In it, someone in her early 30s writes about her envy because she holds "a BA from a prestigious college and an MFA from another prestigious college" and has written a novel for which she has had a hard time finding an agent and not only doesn't she understand why she's not getting the 6-figure deals her friends are getting but she also writes about her all-consuming envy. (I use "she" and "her" but it is not clear from the letter whether the author is a he or a she.) Cheryl Strayed, who worked multiple jobs to put herself through college and lost her mother when she was 22 and has had zero help from her father, talks about the feeling of jealousy and the letter writer's outsized sense of self-entitlement.

So I wanted to write a bit more about this. First, about envy. I think it's one thing to be ambitious, but people who are envious (more than 2 seconds before taking action) consistently self-identify as people who are number-twos and also-rans. The truly successful people don't waste any energy being envious of others. They recognize the signal as a signal that they are falling short of their own expectations and work to adjust course. Seeing who is envious is a really easy way to see who isn't of the high caliber he'd like people to believe is. It's a matter of education, I think, and perhaps of genes. Ever since I was little I was taught to focus on improving myself and not pay other classmates' success or supposed success any attention, and so that is what I did. I just focus on building my own life the way I want it. It certainly is a departure of the norm, especially these days where so much of our lives are online, but it has been a great adventure.

I still think those two personalities - the people who focus on being fulfilled on their own terms (or, to use a cliche, who focus on being the best they can be) and the people who look around and compare themselves incessantly to others - go hand in hand with very different probabilities of workplace success. There is only so many hours you have to be great at your job if you spend your time spouting venom about colleagues or supervisors who have proved more skilled than you are. You can pretend you have a snarky sense of humor or feel important but the fact is, if you were at the top (of whatever mountain you want to scale) you wouldn't have anyone to feel envious about. One can learn a lot about someone's perception of themselves by seeing if they are envious of others or not, and if they self-select as number-twos by being envious of others, who are you to argue with them, really? Just be glad you got that piece of information. 

Then, the part about self-entitlement. I see where Strayed comes from, but I also recognize that, especially when it comes to professional degrees, the whole business model of higher education is based on the assumption that students' very expensive degree will open opportunities that the students would not have had otherwise. The idea behind getting a MFA from a prestigious university is to try to play by the rules. We as higher ed professionals disseminate the message that if students do that, then they're so much more likely to achieve their dreams. In other words, we give students the impression that there is a recipe for success on life, and that if they follow the recipe they will have the life of their dreams. And then students don't necessarily get the life of their dreams, but when they point it out people start using the word 'self-entitled.'

I think it is more complicated than that. (There was an example of self-entitled brat in the book, someone who resented her parents for deciding not to pay for her Master's degree in the field of her dreams, to which Strayed wisely pointed out that if she was able to pay her way through college then surely the letter writer could find a way to make the math work out to pay for her graduate degree.) In a way, we create those feelings of self-entitlement. And as long as graduate (or even undergraduate) tuition remains so high, we are probably going to continue to produce those "self-entitled" grads. There is little incentive for a university to cut down tuition rates, but there is a lot more incentive to provide more of a structure to help those grads get the jobs they feel they deserve to keep demand high. So perhaps as time goes by, we will see fixed costs for graduate programs increase further, and in turn tuition costs increase accordingly. Either a university will come up with a revolutionary model to disseminate education at much cheaper cost, or we are bound to create many more so-called self-entitled grads in the foreseeable future.


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