• Endria Richardson

powell v education, or “graduate school: what’s the big idea???”

Well folks, adversity is upon us, and when times get hard, people get real. Real like having rats in your ceiling walking around like it’s nothing. Nevermind that it was only a pigeon. It still begs the question of whether or not vermin in your ceiling really belong there. How’d that pigeon get up there? It flew through what hole? Our ceiling more or less fell down at work (times are hard), so here I am at Destination B, with a window the size of Kentucky in front of my desk, prepared to sigh with contentment for the next week. Maybe the money for construction will run out and we’ll be relocated here permanently. It’s the Great Recession, after all.

So, what have I been doing all day with all of my work materials snuggled away beneath layers of tile and asbestos? The only downside to this office is that the internet is very slow, so I have been writing some “articles” for work (The Amazing Scavenger Hunt! and The Intergenerational Women and Girls’ Conference – whew) and generally bowseing about, only without so much alcohol. What more, I’ve been using this time to come to a decision about my future, which as it stands, is precariously balanced above the precipice, preparing to make its ultimate swan dive into the balm of decision-hood. Nevermind that anyone who knows anything knows that I never plunge deep enough into any decision to reap any kind of soothing benefits.

This decision making process has been going on for a few weeks (or months, or years, depending on how you’d like to calculate), but entered a decidedly acute phase at about 4:00 this morning. So here’s the deal. I’m going to tell you my two options (we always only ever have two options, as everyone knows), and you’re going to give me an answer.

Lawyer or Writer?

Everyone knows you can only be one thing at a time for your whole life. You know this, I know this. And according to this article, if I don’t become a writer, I’m going to have to go to law school.

In order to facilitate our discussion, I’m going to tell you a little bit about my dilemma, so that it can be your dilemma, too. As a teaser to my dilemma, an hors d’oeuvre if you will, here is a fascinating article from the NY Times op-ed section today on the need for widespread reform in the nation’s higher education system. I’m going to post some thoughts I had about this op-ed to an email I sent to a friend earlier today:

“He is working under the assumption that academia should be at its core civically engaged, and I’m inclined to agree with that. I think it fundamentally should be, and I don’t think it is. I think there are many ways in which studies can be “applicable” – I think the humanities like English and social studies can be just as directly “applicable” as medicine or chemistry or engineering or math. But something like theoretical math I have a problem with in terms of doing it for its own sake. The same way I have a dilemma with theoretical writing, especially more abstract poetry, or writing whose aim is not explicitly or implicitly political – it is beautiful and necessary, but it is also isolated, and far from being applicable to many people’s realities. …I think there should be a point to reading Scotus beyond self-gratification. Or rather, I think reading Scotus for self-gratification should be the exception as opposed to the rule of graduate study. Or it should be something that someone does as a hobby. That’s a strong statement, and one I’m not necessarily prepared to stand completely behind, but I do inherently have a problem understanding the purpose of graduate study – that’s potentially funded by other people – that has no applicability to anyone but a very small handful of people – and that is not striving towards imparting any kind of wisdom, enlightenment, material gains, or anything, really, to anyone else. What attracts me the most to this article is that he seems to be suggesting that there is a place for everything – he mentions studying art as part of his problem-oriented fields. I don’t think he’s saying get rid of Scotus. But find a way to make reading Scotus part of a greater effort.”

Now, that was a blatantly lazy maneuver. But sometimes laziness is in order if you want to cut through some of the brush to find your way to the clearing before midnight. Now that you know my philosophical and moral leanings, it should be easier for you to come to a strong decision. I believe that if we’re in a position to do so, we have a human obligation to be civically engaged in our work. Whatever work we decide to do, in a professional sense, should strive towards an end goal greater than self-gratification. Even that this should be the primary goal of our work as humans. That is if you are in a position to do so. We all have to take care of numero uno first. Paying bills is paying bills, and I’m not going to shout anyone out for doing their business. But paying bills is one thing and vacationing in Ibiza with your live in nanny is another. We’re not all in a position to think moral thoughts about the type of work we want to do, but some of us for sure are.

Now that I think of it, I’m not even sure if I would consider this a “moral” thought. I’d probably consider it more of a pragmatic thought, if that’s considering moral and pragmatic to be at odds, or least having little overlap, with each other. I don’t think it’s possible to be fully satisfied, in a comprehensive, human way, if you are not, in some large aspect of your work, engaging with other people, engaging with humanity in a broad, towards a “greater good”. I think it will get you all emotionally and physically and spiritually fucked up. And I don’t think you can avoid it. I have a very give-and-take system of beliefs, it turns out. Don’t ask me to define these lofty terms, I’m just going to use them willy nilly, ok.

In any way you slice it, this is a contestable theory, and I’m ready to admit that. I don’t need to apply it to everyone just at this moment. I’ll settle for myself. Look at that, we just cut through the grease and here’s the meat and bones. I know that I am not satisfied with my work unless I feel that it is applicable in a greater way than leaving me feeling academically, or even spiritually satisfied. To me, writing is both academically and spiritually satisfying – under certain conditions. Usually, that is when I have an assignment or specific task to complete. It gives me an excuse of sorts. But whenever I immerse myself in my writing for a long enough period of time, and to the sacrifice of everything else, I eventually find myself stagnating. I lose motivation. It becomes less satisfying. I find myself asking what the point of it is. I become, in short, quickly existential. I can’t gear up without knowing that there is a purpose to writing beyond myself and the pleasure, satisfaction and, if I may be so bold, enlightenment it brings me. The feeling of satisfaction when I have described something beautiful is followed quickly by “…and?” What does it mean that you can describe something beautiful, beyond the first moment’s satisfaction? This is the fear, anxiety and unanswered question that have plagued my writing life. (*Side note: Maybe the problem is that I am writing for myself, and not for others, and I would feel more satisfied if I were writing for others. I came across that thought today, after reading an otherwise useless interview with a writer, who said, “most readers really just want to live in the world of the characters, not be reminded over and over of how smart and eloquent the writer is.” Word, Steve Almond, word! This is a whole other bag of worms, which I am prepared to dig into only after solving my current crisis, or actually, knowing me, halfway through when I get distracted. Stay tuned for a post on “How to be an Engaged Writer Without Being Political”)

Now, the flip side.

Wait,

You’ve all had enough of this for now. More when I get home. It’s time to head out now.

#writing #moralobligation #greatrecession #academia #socialwork #law #markctaylor #pigeons #highereducation #newyorktimes

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