A letter from university
Dear Mom and Dad,
I wrote my last exam for the year today. I should have the results by the end of next week.
For the first time since I set foot on campus in September, I have the luxury of being able to think about why I’m here. Most of that thinking is about things you never told me.
What I’ve come to understand is that if we ever needed all the able minded, well-educated people on deck we could muster, we need them now. By every conceivable yardstick, the world is changing faster than it ever has and there’s no shortage of problems to solve and opportunities to seize. And it really is about the economy.
It’s painful to read about university trained young people whose intellect is being wasted because they either can’t or won’t interpret the world around them. It’s been said that a problem is an opportunity in disguise. Francis Bacon said: “A wise man will make more opportunities than he finds.”
Farmers base seed purchases on what crops will grow in their soil. Some years, they grow different crops to reflect changes in markets or growing conditions. Other years, they have to borrow to pay for those purchases with the expectation that demand and yield will generate the revenue to repay those loans and net a living wage. Those decisions are driven by pragmatism, not by wishful thinking that everything’s going to work out just fine. Produce too much and farm gate prices go down. Produce too little and it’s a struggle to make ends meet. It’s a tough life, but they confront it head-on.
The value of the degree you and Dad have chosen to pay for is going to be determined in much the same way. I am and will always be grateful for how hard you worked and how much you sacrificed so that I could get to this point. But universities produce crops, too: crops of graduates. When supply exceeds demand in certain disciplines, as is the case today, the value of degrees in those disciplines goes down. When parents contemplate how they’re going to spend their education dollars, they tend to ignore all of the other apples in the basket except for the one apple that belongs to them. Each of those apples is looking for a buyer. The apple that satisfies a demand that the others don’t will attract one. The others won’t.
But this is where universities and farmers part company: universities are paid for every graduate they produce whether someone hires those graduates or not.
Stories about unpaid internships and contract jobs rather than stories about full-time jobs started to appear in 2012. The term precarious employment, or contingent employment as it’s known in the U.S., has worked its way into the language, and university graduates aren’t immune. You sent me to university to learn how to think, so why am I and so many of the rest of us underemployed, precariously employed, or unemployed? The answer may be that we’re not nearly as good as farmers are at figuring out what seeds to sow, what they’ll grow and who’ll buy them. Farmers are acutely aware of their environment. All of it. Many of us who live in big cities aren’t.
The way you’ve chosen to educate me suggests that we don’t understand the land we live on. There’s no underestimating how important it is that we all bear down, really bear down, and figure it out, and that we do it on our own initiative because governments, education systems and institutions of higher learning don’t teach that most basic of life skills—yet. The message coming from governments and the schools they own and operate is that education and we, your children, are political footballs.
What distinguishes the people who produce the food we eat from the people who eat it is that the producers live with and on the land 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, year in and year out. For them, the land is reality and they deal with it accordingly. The rest of us live 24/7 with our equivalent, the economy and the labour market. But we don’t give it its due, so we don’t understand it.
It’s time we did.
There’s a resource I just learned about. It’s called The Personal Due Diligence Project, PDD for short. I wish I’d heard about it sooner. Their people work with parents and children to help them think the way farmers think about what kinds of seeds to plant. You can find their website at http://personalduediligence.com. Please respond to the survey they’re conducting into the expectations parents and their children have of higher education. The survey is entitled ‘Hopes, dreams and tuition’ and you can find it by clicking here. I hope you do.
I’ll be home soon.
All my love.
PS: You might also want to click on the links to the following stories.
- ‘Australia Sells Education to Chinese Students at Double the Price’ — BloombergBusiness
- ‘Ontario employers cashing in on temporary workers.’ — The Toronto Star
- ‘Inside a Chinese test prep factory’ — The New York Times Magazine
- ‘Microsoft’s Unionized Contractors Get Aggressive. Software bug testers unionize to get paid leave. They want more.’ — BloombergBusiness
- ‘The World Is Missing Out on $1.2 Trillion in Wages. Some 61 million fewer people were employed in 2014 than there would have been had pre-crisis employment growth trends continued’ — BloombergBusiness