Monday, March 11, 2013

Minding someone else's business

(E-mail to: “Student X”)

Hi “Student X,”

I read with great interest your March 6 Vermilion column “Teach business to all.” Afterward, I felt like taking a vacation to Gotham City to lie at the beach and catch some sun.

Seriously, that column was bleak. I barely know how to take it as a veteran of the job market, let alone how I would as an up-until-now motivated college student.

There’s certainly some truth in what you say. I have a master’s degree and it hasn’t made me at all special. In the eight years since I graduated, I’ve had three full-time jobs (two in my field), two yearlong stretches of unemployment and numerous part-time jobs doing things that don’t even require a GED. It’s an understatement to say that I pictured a more stable future back in the day. If anyone should agree with you about the uncertain value of a college degree in a difficult job market, it’s me.

And yet, you lost me.

Part of it is that you don’t disclose who you are. Are you a student? A business owner? Both? Neither? Knowing that would help readers figure out whether to trust your insight.

Are you a student? If so, why? After all, you allege that college is a scam and that degrees are worthless. If you’re so reckless as to urge other students to drop out, why not heed your own advice?

Are you a business owner? If so, your experience adds weight to your words. But if you’re just parroting rigid business principles you heard in class one day, then we deserve to know that too.

In any case, you offer overly simplistic advice to address a complex problem. By insisting that anyone can (and everyone should) start their own business, you’re presenting a fantasy every bit as destructive as the one you aim to debunk. A business enterprise requires capital, key connections, a specific brand of determination, the ability to withstand years of potential poverty and, most importantly, something marketable. That’s fine for someone willing and able to handle it. But not everyone can, should or wants to assume that burden. Most businesses need employees, and many people are perfectly happy with something that brings a decent standard of living. Good jobs may be harder to find these days, but they’re still out there. You’d be better off informing fellow students how to be competitive job-seekers rather than indulging in free-market fantasies.

I wonder too what the point is in lamenting the alleged loss of what you call “critical thinking” in American workers, when you also say you’ll only hire in China because it’s cheaper. Does “critical thinking” mean something different to you than it does to me?

For me, critical thinking is perhaps the most valuable asset I received from my education. It gave me an intellectual foundation that made those seven years worthwhile, even if it hasn’t been a golden ticket to Wealthville. And I recommend that everyone stick with it, including yourself, regardless of the short-term forecast. Whatever setbacks people have in life — be it in business or elsewhere — they’ll be glad they gained the tools to be able to handle life’s challenges.

Your column has convinced me that it’s business students who need more humanities courses, not vice versa. Maybe then, we’ll eventually foster a business climate more understanding of the economic value of an educated, motivated and well-compensated work force. That would be an improvement over the short-term, non-trickling-down sugar highs currently wrecking our economy. Our future needs more education, not less. The longer I’m out of college, the more that lesson resonates.

Ian McGibboney
Former Vermilion columnist

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