The stimulus quotes from Miller and D’Souza represent divergent insights about where American society is going and all that these imply for the career choices college students make. It is not, unhappily, a question of right or wrong beliefs or even a matter of one being more prevalent than the other because, on reflection, each author makes a valid case.
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The Desolate View
Banal sameness – Michael Miller proceeds from his premise that the era of pioneering and inventiveness is over. America, he contends, has lost the spark of rugged individualism that brought it to greatness and settled for the safety of anonymous homogeneity. Taken at face value, this view has dire implications since it suggests Americans no longer have a fire in their bellies and that the baton of global leadership has passed on to other nations.
On one level, this is really Miller taking a dim view of the United States sinking into a morass of consumerist mediocrity in employing the phrase “sterilized, automated contentment.” Manufacturers and service providers aggressively market a huge bounty of antiseptic, germ-free, sterile food and beverage; “crash-safe” cars that evoke Ralph Nader’s condemnation, “unsafe at any speed”; there is a great fuss made about the ideals of universal health coverage; California spends a great deal of money to coddle and counsel its crystal methamphetamine addicts, half the total in the States; and every appliance to promote convenient living is available. Dynamic dreams, Miller complains, have been supplanted by wanting sameness (“…standardized, replaceable…”) to the extent that every minority and fringe group bristle at the notion that they are different and beyond the moral pale. How else does one explain why “constitutional right” and “consenting adults” are excuses much bandied about?
Dreams die hard – If the sub-prime mortgage collapse and ever-costlier gasoline have made acquiring a house and car a more remote proposition for Middle America, they can still be realized. In fact, there remain many exciting, popular and well-paying careers that belie the assertion of Miller about intellectually deadening and amoral professions. Going by such criteria as higher-than-average jobs growth and pay, sources like CNN’s Money magazine, Salary.com and CareerBuilder.com demonstrate that many of the more lucrative professions exemplify either intellectual stimulation, service to others or both. Certainly, there is a surfeit of such challenging careers: Software Engineer or Systems Analyst, Computer software engineers, Market research analyst, College professor, Computer IT analyst, Network systems and data communications analysts, Financial adviser, Real estate appraiser, Human Resources Manager, Physicians and surgeons, Physician assistant, Registered nurses, General and operations managers, Psychologists and Business operation specialists. There are surely more of the above than prosaic, mind-deadening jobs that also happen to pay above the median for America: Accountants and auditors, Maintenance and repair workers, or Carpenters.
Exemplars – Ultimately, one acknowledges that the beauty of the American dream lies not in the tawdry sameness of suburban residential tracts, “big box” retailers, television fare and careers in sales. Rather it is exciting for being achievable at all for such great numbers in a nation now over 300 million strong. Far from chasing “standardized, replaceable and irrelevant” careers, today’s youth are inspired by the great achievers of our age, giants such as Steve Jobs, Ralph Ellison, Al Gore, Bill Gates and fellow philanthropist Warren Buffett, Kobe Bryant, Steven Spielberg and Barack Obama. There is hope yet.
D’Souza paints a romantic scenario of college as the time when young Americans learn to live independently and perforce make decisions on their own about careers they will follow. There is nothing new about such a starry-eyed and idyllic view because such has been the experience for centuries ever since the privileged young went off to university in medieval Europe. One must be careful about such a rose-colored view because there are mixed trends in the United States of today about just how widespread is the intent and privilege of going to college. But it is also undeniable that college is an unmatched leavening experience for the intellectual, moral and emotional strengthening of older adolescents and the youth.
A democratic privilege – Most young Americans go on to college and, owing partly to market pressures, the number of adults with college degrees apparently continues to rise. The best intentions of the “No Child Left Behind” Act and the abundance of financial assistance or student loan programs notwithstanding, most of the rest are those who cannot or will not enter college.
Early in the decade, the proportion of high school graduates who went on to college rose once again to reach close to two-thirds. This has to be an outstanding accomplishment by any benchmark, especially when one considers that most of the rest cannot afford to do so or simply prefer to be independent right away even if it means blue-collar work. Still others set their sights on being the next Venus Williams or Kobe Bryant, little knowing that the odds are against them.
In total, the number of adults with college degrees continues to rise. As more and more companies require college graduates for even rank-and-file white-collar jobs, many respond positively by attending adult extension classes or online classes. Such a trend has also been given impetus by an unremitting wave of job losses as American industries outsource more and more work overseas.
A coming of age – For everyone who makes it, college is truly a rite of passage. Free of daily scrutiny of parents and of legal age finally, college students are free to re-make their own lives. They indulge in cigarettes, drugs, drink and romantic relationships as much as their peers or their own mores will permit. For the first time, they are answerable to no one but remote deans of college and the police when they indulge in high-risk behavior like drunk driving. Such libertarian excess just never palls. Living the hard-bought heritage of women’s rights, coeds in particular discover the perils of risky acts that their male classmates naturally condone.
At the same time, the juvenile career aspirations of middle school and junior college are subjected to the greater rigor of college academics and expectations all around to make adult decisions about the rest of their lives. In addition, exposure to visiting professionals, to professors with outside work and to internships all help refine many a career choice.