My Midlife Crisis

I turn 44 tomorrow, so the timing is about right for a mid-life crisis, no? Some guys deal with their mid-life crises by buying little red sports cars, but most of us professors can barely afford the payments on our mid-sized economy sedans as it is. Some cheat on their wives with pretty girls 15 years younger than them, but my wife is a pretty girl 15 years younger than me, so that seems, I don’t know, redundant. Lacking access to these kinds of conventional diversions, then, I guess I’m going to have to tackle my crisis head-on. The worst part is that I never saw yesterday’s assault coming.

In some respects Monday, 1.31.05 was a pretty good day. In others it was a disaster. It was as though events in the external world were somehow conspiring to bait me about my life and the choices I’ve made in living it. It’s like when you’ve just been dumped by someone you were crazy about and all of a sudden every song you hear seems to be about your life.

First, a bit of background. Last year, as part of a professional program I was participating in with Lee Hecht Harrison (one of the largest and most successful employment counseling firms in the world), I took a little survey designed to help me understand what my primary motivators were in seeking the right job. The questionnaire evaluated me on things like need for financial stability, need for wealth (not the same thing), need for service (making the world a better place, etc.), need for family, and so on. I think there were maybe 10-12 qualities that we wound up ranking. (I remember that wealth was way down on my list. It would be nice to be rich, sure, but I’ve never been willing to do what I’d have to do to get rich.)

As it turned out, the items that ranked #1 and #2 on my list got the guns turned on them yesterday, with the result being me wondering what the hell I was thinking when I decided last year to go in search of academic jobs.

My #2 most important goal was service, and this is something I’ve known about myself for a long time. I have a need to make the world around me better if I can, and when I feel like I’m not making a meaningful difference in people’s lives it starts to wear on me. Such was life in the corporate world, where a lot of days the most I could possibly say is that I’d helped move some money from one pile to another, while acknowledging that there was no moral difference whatsoever in the two piles. All cash, no soul. It was hard to live with myself at times.

The upshot of this revelation was obvious B for me personally, service and meaningful contribution to society has always been primarily about teaching, the thing that I have always felt I was best at, and deep inside the thing I have felt was my one true calling in life.

The goal the survey IDed as #1 for me is a bit more complicated, and I admit up front that it probably doesn’t make me look very good in the eyes of many. But #1 was status B I have a profound need to be recognized and valorized for my accomplishments. If this means I’m insecure or an egomaniac, so be it. I understand the roots of the issue pretty well, though, and if you understand a couple things about me it probably even makes a bit of sense.

First, ever since I was old enough to have anything like a self-image, I’ve always felt that I was meant (intended, destined, fated, whatever) to accomplish something major in my life. I don’t recall anybody ever telling me this, so maybe I came out of the womb thus disfigured.

Second, I grew up in a Southern Baptist household that took certain lessons quite seriously. One I recall my grandparents making a big deal of was the Biblical Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25:14-28), which made clear that we were not only expected to put the gifts God had given us to good use, but further, that doing so was a moral obligation, a responsibility of the first order. God made you smart, I was told, and therefore it is important that you use your brains to help people.

The lesson took, I guess you’d say. Even as I wandered away from Christianity, I never strayed from the lesson of this one moral imperative. Not inside, anyway. It’s clear enough from what I say above about moving money from pile to pile that as much as I might have believed certain things, I did not always live them as I should have.

In other words, for better or worse, I’m the kind of person who needs to make the world a better place and who needs to be recognized for it. These things are my crack. If you’re the sort who translates this into “he’s the kind of guy who does the right things for the wrong reasons,” well, like I say, so be it. I am what I am, and it’s not possible to fully realize your potential without first understanding and accepting where you’re starting from.

Anyway, I wound up accepting an offer to become a professor in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication here at St. Bonaventure, and while I’ve worked like a damned rented mule since arriving on campus in August, I have loved the fact that finally I’m back on the right path. I’m teaching, and I’m in an environment where my expertise and contributions are appreciated by my colleagues. I feel useful and I feel validated. So there’s goal #2 and goal #1 co-existing happily. Been a long time since that happened.

But if you look at my blog for yesterday, you’ll notice that a couple of stories – one in the Chronicle of Higher Education and one reported in the news media – really torqued me off. First was the notice that the goddamned government, may they all roast in Hell, are contemplating a move to make tuition benefits taxable. As I noted in my post, this one is more than just the sort of stupid policy I expect out of the bought-up and sold-out whores who run our kleptocracy these days. This one is personal, because I have a sister who works at Wake Forest University, and one of the things that made the job so attractive to her was that her kids could attend college there free. Now, Wake is one of the top 25 universities in the nation, so this is a big deal, especially since my sister and her husband will likely never be able to afford the tuition that places like Wake charge. This may be the one and only shot that my niece and nephew will ever have at this kind of educational opportunity. But will the additional tax hit proposed by this bit of “reform” put that education out of reach?

By the way, according to my colleague, Dr. Denny Wilkins: “Why does the federal government want to do this? To do what it always does: Get more money out of the governed. In this case, the feds argue that taxing this tuition benefit would raise $1.9 billion (yes, that’s with a B) over 10 years. That money (seems like a lot, doesn’t it?) would pay for only 10 days of the American incursion into Iraq, where we’re dropping more than $200 million a day with no end in sight, elections notwithstanding.” Well, there you have it. My niece and nephew might suffer, but it’s for a good cause.

The other story that set me off began with the news that a distressingly high percentage of our high school kids think that darned 1st Amendment just goes too far, and that newspapers should have to get gummit clearance before they run their stories. In other words, they kinda like the old Pravda model. Then I saw the rest of the story and realized that not only are these kids possessed of solid 4th Reich thinking, their teachers and principals are, too.

By the end of the day a fabulous ethics roundtable panel in my J/MC 101 class, where I brought in almost the whole faculty (and a top-shelf crew of people they are, too) to share their own real-world ethical experiences and challenges with my students, had been overshadowed, if not swallowed whole, by the larger, butt-ugliest reality of being an educator in this country at this moment in time. As I told my wife when I got home, it’s really a perfect storm of stupid.

<rant mode on>

It goes something like this. Once upon a time, back in the good old days, the unfortunate truth was that a lot of people just weren’t that swooft. As I like to joke, half the population is statistically below average.

But now it’s worse, and getting worser:

1: The anti-intellectual camps in our society are growing increasingly aggressive in their pursuit of ignorance. The worst and least educated among us have been emboldened by the attention paid to them by cynical power elites and have not been subtle enough to see how they’re being played. Political victories aplenty have validated, in their minds, the triumph of common sense over the arrogance of Abook learnin’, and the result is not just a society that’s getting dumber by the day, but one that’s pretty comfortable with its ignorance. You might say that large parts of America are getting in touch with their inner doofus.

2: Political power enables people to legally decree truth. In the worst cases, this means that our less-informed fellow citizens can bend the engines of power in society to the service of blind dogma. Perhaps the most obvious manifestation here is the herpes-like persistence of creationism, which now appears to have abandoned “creation science” in favor of something being styled as “intelligent design,” but rest assured that science isn’t the only target in the crosshairs. Not only does the country need more faith-based science, history and government could also do with a corrective. Despite the fact that we know the framers of the Constitution to be Deists, not Christians, all occurrences of “God” in the Constitutional canon are well on their way to being reinterpreted as references to a fundamentalist personal savior deity. In the same vein, Jefferson’s overt language on the separation of church and state can only have meant the very opposite of what it actually said. How long before the Earth is flat again, with the Sun and all the other heavenly bodies revolving around it?

3: Our leaders are no longer content to starve education to death – now they’re training howitzers on it. Budgets continue to shrink, except in tech-driven vocational education; government mandated information quota standardization results in actual teaching being replaced by test prep; and yesterday’s news about taxing ed benefits, well, one might expect more of that kind of reasoning in coming years, not less.

Conclusion: our educational system is now actively structured to prevent the production of thinking citizens. But why?

Two reasons. First, high-tech automatons are ideally suited to revenue generation. It’s a new, information-society iteration of Taylorism, a re-mechanization of work that treats the worker as little more than an expendable, replaceable cog in the money-printing press. Second, from a political standpoint, people who do as they’re told without thinking or questioning are far easier to manipulate and manage.

In short, our economic and political power elites have a vested interest in keeping the rabble as dumb as possible, and we seem to stand at a moment in history where these collective forces of domination have decided to strike while the iron is hot. For a variety of reasons, the early moments of the 3rd Millennium represent a watershed, and a lot of capital is being expended to consolidate power, retool the political and economic order, and establish a new hegemony (if I might employ a term I have historically avoided due to its inherent Leftist baggage).

So, back to my mid-life crisis. Specifically, how does all this relate to my little burst of introspection on the occasion of my birthday?

Well, let’s start with goal #2 above – my need to meaningfully contribute to my society. In the context of America 2k5, we can file my decision to be an educator under “L” for “Losing Battles.” To some extent I feel like the journey is 1000 miles long, and at the end of the day if I’ve traveled 100 miles I look up to discover that I still have 1200 miles left to go. I feel like the guy in Monty Python & the Holy Grail who’s running as hard as he can but never gets any closer.

The task of being a university instructor is a lot harder than it was when I stepped in front of my first class in 1987, and it’s getting harder every day. Students are less prepared by their high schools on all measures I can identify – writing skills, thinking skills, history, knowledge of government, current events, etc. – and many seem to arrive in my classroom expecting J/MC 101 to be every bit as exciting as Grand Theft Auto. When it isn’t, their eyes glass over and it’s the fault of the instructor.

[A brief aside on this subject. My J/MC 101 class this semester is, so far, worlds better than the one I taught last semester, so I acknowledge that the story I’m telling here reflects the worst of things, not the best. Still, I’m not setting up any straw men – what I’m describing is a reality that probably most all teachers at any level would recognize (save the 20% who think the 1st Amendment is a problem, anyway – they’d see the absence of critical thinking skills as good thing, I suppose).]

Since our students aren’t critical thinkers by nature or training, it’s imperative that my colleagues and I make them critical thinkers – this is a feckin’ journalism and mass comm program, after all. Part of inculcating thinking skills requires the professor to challenge the student, and a disturbing number of these kids have not only never been challenged on their belief systems, they don’t take kindly to me doing it.

When I have to devote preparation energy and class time to the sad fact that a number of them are highly suspicious of the 1st Amendment (I asked my 101 class on last semester’s final if the 1st Amendment went “too far” in granting freedom, and 11 out of 35 answered yes; unfortunately, some of the ones who said no did so for reasons that were borderline incomprehensible, so even those answers failed to provide much solace – I mean, a chimp flipping a coin could come up with “no” half the time, right?), well, at that point I’m no longer in the higher education business, I’m in the remedial junior high civics business.

So, on item #2, get me a pole and point me at the nearest windmill.

As for item #1 – my need for status and recognition – I find myself wondering what could possibly afford me less status than teaching. Roger Clemens will earn $18M this coming year pitching for the Astros. During the season he’ll make roughly 35 starts, assuming he stays healthy, which comes to better than $514K per start. That’s 20 times what a lot of our teachers make in a year. Draw your own conclusions.

Forgive me if this last bit seems a little self-indulgent, but in many ways this is more a letter to myself than it is anything else. As dull as the day to day details of my life probably look to the uninterested observer, I suppose inside I’m the lead in a terribly dramatic epic production. As we enter the third act, our protagonist clicks off another year against the time he’s been allotted in this life….

Even somebody who has struggled as mightily against the tides of age and convention as I have probably has to admit that by the time you hit 45 you should have decided what you want to be when you grow up. There is so much to love about what I do for a living, but there is also the soul-numbing fact that I have apparently chosen a cold and forbidding path through a land that can’t decide whether it hates my kind or simply doesn’t care.

A sports car would be so much simpler…

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