Texas, where I live, has suddenly “discovered” an enormous budget deficit, just months after our governor was re-elected by telling everybody that he had kept Texas on a sound financial footing, unlike, say, California, which is facing major cuts in services. Suddenly Texas is ready to close down several community colleges and reduce funding for public schools drastically. Anything to avoid those job-killing tax hikes.
One fact that keeps surfacing in this context is this one: People with more education are much more likely to get and hold onto good jobs. Thus, cutting funding to education to save jobs is a classic case of cutting off the nose to spite the face. Or so it seems.
As an academic, I have to think about questions like this and their ethical implications frequently. My field is musicology: a word that most people now associate primarily with Prince, if they associate it with anything at all. For as long as I can remember, many more advanced degrees have been granted in musicology than the job market can justify, and the result has not been more jobs but more unemployed musicologists. I myself was “under-employed” for ten years before finally finding one of those elusive tenure-track jobs. In the meantime, I discovered that having a PhD over-qualifies you for almost everything except flipping hamburgers, where the turnover is so high already that they don’t care if you’re really looking for a better job.
The ethical implications of this situation resurfaced this week at an academic colloquium held in my department for our academic music majors. My colleagues spent nearly an hour talking to them about the fields of musicology, music theory and ethnomusicology, with an eye to helping them select a graduate program that suits their interests. It fell to me to conclude the performance with what I have come to think of as “the gloom and doom speech.” In a few harrowing words, I told them that there are few fields in the world in which they can invest more time, money and emotional energy in getting a degree that qualifies them for fewer jobs that pay less. I ask them if they are so determined to be musical academics that if a job doesn’t appear right away, they would be willing to sell apples on a street corner until it does. I tell them that my version of selling apples on a street corner was teaching English (yes, English!) at a second-rate private high school for two years, and I sometimes regale them with horror stories from that experience. (I once received a one-page paper on the Odyssey in which Odysseus was spelled seven different ways, none of them correct.) Then I watch as they file out dejectedly – or, even more problematically, as they absorb this information and continue to talk about their futures as though they had not heard me. This bothers me because I did the same thing when I was their age and I got “the speech” from one of my professors. I sometimes wonder if I should have listened – but deep down I’m sure it wouldn’t have made a difference, and I just hope my students’ determination is as strong as mine was. They will certainly need it.
Yesterday I sweetened the pill a bit with the following video. Watch it, and tell me if you think it’s funny. Then tell me what you would do if you were in my shoes. Or if you already are.