"You tell me whar a man gits his corn-pone, en I'll tell you what his 'pinions is."
—Mark Twain (from Corn-Pone Opinions, 1901)
(Swans - April 8, 2013) Alyssa Röhricht's recent article "Drenched in Debt" reflects the situation of far too many young people today who are heavily burdened with student debt. Like Alyssa, many face a difficult choice: to pursue post-graduate higher education (with its promise of a future "better life") by assuming significant debt for decades, or to bail out into real life with whatever education they've managed to get so far.
How does a student make a decision on this question, which they will have few regrets about in the long term?
The desire to attend a prestigious university, absorb much information through advanced and intense study in the company of expert thinkers, researchers, teachers, and of course fellow students, and to then join an elite class of intellectuals in a chosen field of expertise and practice is both a credit to a student's commitment to scholarship and self-improvement, and a potential entrapment into a niche of overspecialization where personal values may be constricted.
The popular idea behind acquiring higher education is that the skills, knowledge, and abilities to be gained, as certified by diplomas, will open higher-paid opportunities of employment for young holders of baccalaureates, masters, and doctorates.
So, students, you must ask yourselves: "who is going to pay me to do what I intend to study, as a job?" Also, "how much do I expect this pay to be, and how long do I expect such employment to last?" You don't want to end up an overspecialized dinosaur that becomes a discarded fossil in a post-extinction labor market of the not-too-distant future, before you can afford to retire. You want to have some reasonable expectation that any debt you assume now can be discharged without undue strain later.
Once you carry debt, you will be constrained to get and stay employed at an income level that can discharge your debt. This requirement could easily override any creative, political, or moral ideas and activities you may wish to engage in. For example, a young lawyer who carries Prestige League law school debt "has to" get a job that can pay off this debt. This can mean that instead of engaging in public interest or environmental law, a young attorney would feel economically compelled to do legal work he or she finds repellant, such as representing insurance companies fighting claimant individuals (which is much more lucrative than representing such plaintiffs), and employers seeking to deny workman's compensation benefits to manual laborers (ditch diggers and hod carriers whose backs and hips finally give out at age 45, can no longer work, and have no insurance, so they seek compensation from their last big employer, whose insurance company lawyers -- perhaps in their first jobs -- are devoted to defeating such claims however valid). The employer will always have a mission and ideology that you as an employee will have to support, because that is precisely why you would be paid.
In short, debt is a significant loss of freedom for guiding your own destiny, for adhering to your own ideals, and for engaging in your own true interests. You want to be sure that if you buy into a higher income lifestyle (to come) by assuming significant student debt (now) that the material aspects you gain (in the future) are sufficient compensation for the long-term constraints that will be placed on your ability to choose what you work on; how you work at it; where, with, and for whom you expend your energy; and when you want to move on professionally or just break off for a time to have some fun.
Even without debt, the normal burdens of life: marriage, children, dependents (young or old), household finances (mortgages, business loans, car loans, retirement savings, savings funds for vacations, if ever) will all work to constrain your freedom of action and choices of association unless you are completely irresponsible and selfish. So, a young college graduate starting out on a self-directed career will have the most freedom to make the choices best suited to the advancement of their intellectual, artistic, social, and political interests (I exclude any interest to maximize income, though this, too, could happen later) if they are debt-free.
Ask yourself what it is that you see this potential schooling (that requires mortgaging your future) enabling you to do in your desired career. Is your goal to engage in a certain type of work, activity, activism, movement, art, or is your aim to join the elite scholarly, academic, expert community-class that supports the program or school you are interested in as one of its recruitment, vetting, and training portals? I do not imply that either choice is "right" or "wrong," but urge you to be clear in your own mind as to which is your authentic interest.
Depending on your choice, just outlined, you could decide to embark debt-free on engagement with groups, or in jobs you can get now, that are involved in the causes you believe in, and which live out the values you hold as your own. In pursuing such a choice, you would put any desires for career advancement and material gain into the "aspirational" category, and hope (along with doing some practical work for them) that they develop to a satisfying degree over the longer term.
If instead you decide that your fulfillment requires attainment of high academic credentials (as soon as possible), and you accept that the lifestyle you might gain by being accepted into that elite class-community can only be maintained by upholding the psychological and political boundaries on freedom and action that the community members adhere to (conformity to the consensus behavior and hierarchy of the profession), and especially the definitions of purpose and limitations on expression required as conditions of employment (and which limitations are more severe the more you get paid), then take on the debt and pay it off -- financially and behaviorally -- as required.
I suppose you could think of this as "lilies of the field" versus "corn-pone opinions." (Matthew 6:28: And why take ye thought for raiment? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin.) Mark Twain described first learning about corn-pone opinions in his boyhood, from a black slave who parodied the preachers of their town:
The black philosopher's idea was that a man is not independent, and cannot afford views which might interfere with his bread and butter. If he would prosper, he must train with the majority; in matters of large moment, like politics and religion, he must think and feel with the bulk of his neighbors, or suffer damage in his social standing and in his business prosperities. He must restrict himself to corn-pone opinions -- at least on the surface. He must get his opinions from other people; he must reason out none for himself; he must have no first-hand views.
Mark Twain, Corn-Pone Opinions (PDF)
Finally, please realize that in any pursuit of "success" you will often be asked to sell your integrity, if not entirely all at once, then in little pieces, which would be carved off to lighten your steps up to higher rungs of the career ladder. The value you set on your integrity, on your character, will set the limit of your success in the conventional corn-pone sense. Regardless of the material rewards you might gain by diluting your values along the way, you will never escape living with yourself. In your later years, it can be easier to live frugally with an unsold self-regard than to live luxuriantly with a bankrupt soul.
I wish you success in crafting a fulfilling life.
Previous essays by the author on student debt:
"A National Students' Recovery Bank"
21 November 2011
"Beggaring Student Life"
16 January 2012
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About the Author
Manuel García, Jr. on Swans. He is a native of the upper upper west side barrio of the 1950s near Riverside Park in Manhattan, New York City, and a graduate engineering physicist who specialized in the physics of fluids and electricity. He retired from a 29 year career as an experimental physicist with the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, the first fifteen years of which were spent in underground nuclear testing. An avid reader with a taste for classics, and interested in the physics of nature and how natural phenomena can impact human activity, he has long been interested in non-fiction writing with a problem-solving purpose. García loves music and studies it, and his non-technical thinking is heavily influenced by Buddhist and Jungian ideas. A father of both grown children and a school-age daughter, today García occupies himself primarily with managing his household and his young daughter's many educational activities. García's political writings are left wing and, along with his essays on science-and-society, they have appeared in a number of smaller Internet magazines since 2003, including Swans. Please visit his personal Blog at manuelgarciajr.wordpress.com. (back)