Our Universities: Meal Tickets to the Middle Class

Universities perpetuate a misconception about an education — that it guarantees anything separated from the person who claims to have one.  Many know a “Harvard Man” or a Wellesley Woman” who can’t tie his or her own shoes. Character, ability, accomplishment and education sometimes go hand-in-hand, but at other times are as far apart as east from west.

“…the final forming of a person’s character lies in their own hands.”
Anne Frank


I have always been skeptical of the notion that a university degree is a “meal ticket to the middle class.”

In March, the Service Employees International Union endorsed Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn and the governor responded with this observation regarding unionization, “It’s the meal ticket to the middle class.”  Joining an organization guarantees little beyond membership.  A union card should represent the ability of a person to do good work. But it doesn’t always.  It doesn’t guarantee work to its holder either. Confusing certification of membership with motivation, skill, and ability is precarious, potentially perilous, for an organization and eventually for the society where the confusion resides.

Similarly, university leadership, elected officials, parents, students, or any combination thereof, should not see a formal education as a “meal ticket.”   Union or alumni membership as a guarantee of able achievement wrong-headedly expects more than is too frequently desired or delivered.  Confusion’s cost? We are hoodwinked; we see parity in membership status and ability and equal they are not.

Teaching a work ethic at universities is increasingly rare in an environment where diligence is demeaned through lax standards.  Degrees sometimes signify attendance at best.  The bedrock of the middle class was traditionally hard work.  Expanding middle-class poverty is described by Sarah Horwitz in a September 23, 2011 piece in The Atlantic and it’s fast becoming more common.  Horwitz claimed one in seven Americans are in poverty, and too many of those had “meal tickets” that wouldn’t buy a blue plate special.

The conception of the degree as a meal ticket apart from personally exercised opportunity is a crippling deception. Too much debt, too little education, and institutional ambivalence regarding hard work reinforce the “meal-ticket” mind set.  St. Paul’s take on such thinking in a letter to the church at Thessalonica rings true, “If you don’t work, you don’t eat.”  Not much apology or theology in that.  Work, eat. Work, eat.  Work, eat. No guarantees printed on bad paper. There’s no shame in it either.

A withered economy sadly wrings out too little opportunity for too many people.  An MSN Money post defines middle-class as family income between $40,000 and $100,000 a year:  You shop at Target, save for college, go on vacation, own your home, have a secure job with health insurance, lean Democratic but not always, and invest for retirement, ergo you’re middle-class.

Maybe, but that leaves out the most important factor in the equation:  you struggle. Diplomas and union cards don’t diminish the challenges of living a struggle.  “Without a struggle there can be no progress,” proclaimed Frederick Douglas.  The purse paying for the ticket comes from inside a person, not outside, from willingness to work and appreciation of work’s rewards.  That’s an old-fashioned, seemingly unpopular notion of being middle class.

Being middle class is not a destination, but a perspective formed from values learned at home, places of worship, schools, and in the marketplace.  Leaders in many settings, willingly or numbly, confuse certification and, in so doing, purposeful and fulfilling experience and growth are degraded.

University leaders must have the temerity to look student and parent in the eye, after studying the applicant’s past performance and indicators of future performance, and say “I don’t think this is a good idea.” Such a proclamation requires a triangle of realization: courage, commitment to purpose, and the insight that a degree is not a ticket to anything unless we teach work and its value.

In May, The American Spectator carried a piece by Tom Bethel in which he surmised that “Ortega y Gasset’s Revolt of the Masses was published in 1930, but don’t be misled—its author was hostile to the masses. They had attained ‘complete social power,’ and he resented that. The masses ‘neither should nor can direct their own personal existence.’”  It’s the job of universities to proclaim that learning and hard work are lifelong processes for most people.  Membership cards and degrees may become scraps of paper.   Maybe they always have been.

Eric Hoffer’s The True Believer suggested in 1951 that America would soon no longer be “the common man’s continent” but instead was becoming a society of elites – people who don’t labor.  Hoffer blamed an “educated” intelligentsia. Maybe, but this is clear: the intelligentsia had pedigrees, frequently from the best universities in the land, sometimes, with no work experience at all.

Our universities have a social responsibility to actively promote the value of hard work and individual responsibility leading to achievement. Absent that, the degrees peddled are meal tickets on a train bound for a middle-class that no longer exists.


3 thoughts on “Our Universities: Meal Tickets to the Middle Class

  1. While I agree with most of what you state in this essay, I must admit I’m a little perplexed by the Gasset’s quote, “The masses ‘neither should nor can direct their own personal existence.’” That line of thinking looks like a slippery slope.

    • I have not read the article in question. It would seem to me to depend on how he defined “the masses.” In the ’30s in the US there were masses of unwillingly unemployed. As I understand it, in Greece today there are masses how are demanding more because they are entitled with no mention of desire to work.

  2. Universities cannot teach hard work any more: some might drop out. Gasp! What would that to to our retention rate?

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