Basement Rats


You may not know it but you may be guiding your son or daughter into part time work and poverty. You may be guiding them into irrelevance. There is nothing more discouraging, disheartening than working hard and discovering that all that work has made you irrelevant. Make your kids irrelevant and the result will be that they will still be basement rats when you are being carted away in a hearse.

There is nothing more dangerous or destructive than irrelevance.

When I was a boy, the busiest place in town was the blacksmith shop. I used to go there with my father. The blacksmith and his assistant had the coals white hot, sparks showered from the horseshoe or anchor that he was making. Jobs waiting to be done were piled up. Harrows, discs, wagon wheels, all needing repair. Farmers and fishermen coming and going, dropping off items, picking up others. There was the smell of the coal and the steam as red hot iron was plunged into cold water. The blacksmith was so essential that nearly every town had at least one.

There was lots of warning. Automobiles of various kinds by many different companies were being built during the 1800s. However, they weren’t seen as a threat to horse transportation because of the lack of roads, the difficulty of buying fuel, and the frequent breakdowns. The Model-T appeared but horses and blacksmiths continued to be necessary.The beginning of the end for thousands, tens of thousands, of blacksmiths, those valued members of society, those earners of decent incomes, had begun. Blacksmith shops closed their doors.

What was needed now were mechanics. Today, we only see blacksmiths at country fairs where the craft is practiced as a nostalgic hobby.
Employment comes with having knowledge and skill that other people want and need. At one time that was the ability to shoe a horse. See how many jobs that will get you nowadays.

Life and innovation creep up on you, make you irrelevant, leave you with skills for which no one wants to pay. Writing, for example. When I was twenty, I decided I wanted to be a writer. I wanted to write fiction, journalism, drama. Hemingway, I’d read, was both fiction writer and journalist, and was earning a dollar a word. One or two stories would take him to Europe where he could go to the bullfights and drink wine and have adventures.

No one pointed out that I was following the path of the blacksmiths. No one knew that that path to irrelevance ,TV, already existed. We watched it but it never occurred to me or anyone else I knew that the ads on TV were going to strip magazines of their advertising. The magazines were the lifeblood of freelance writers. Articles and stories for popular and trade magazines paid the bills. Companies quickly realized that they were buying eyes for their ads and the eyes were now locked onto TV screens.

Then computers came along. I was involved in computers when only nerdy professors and military types used them. We learned code. We figured out ways to make margins line up. We went from a main frame and a printer that took up an entire basement in a university building to the PC. Publishing radically changed.

The skills that were being taught to editors and printers became irrelevant, were replaced. One PC was the equivalent to a small publisher. Jobs disappeared. Those laboring in the print offices became the new blacksmiths—irrelevant.

University is not trade school. Universities exist to educate. The link of university education to getting a job is tenuous. It may be non-existent. If you don’t want your son or daughter to follow the blacksmiths to oblivion, you need to help them choose a career for the future. If it is a trade, it needs to be a trade that will be relevant until they retire. If it is an education, you need to look ahead to how it will help them earn a living. Doctor, lawyer, dentist are direct. History in Art, musicology, pottery, modern poetry, not so much. Those don’t even get you started as a blacksmith.

When I taught Creative Writing over a period of thirty six years, I always emphasized that students should take a double major. The creative writing gave them skills and the other major gave them a specialty to write about. When the Co-op program started, I encouraged everyone to take part. There are jobs in communications in both private and public areas.

The future has no certainty to it. Change will occur. The unexpected will happen. Ultimately, your son or daughter will have or not have a good financial life by having knowledge and skills that others need or want. Need is better than want. In hard times, wants disappear.

Tell your kids about the fate of blacksmiths. Have conversations with them about the future. If they want to be a musician, artist, poet, actor, help them see that also developing knowledge and skills that are needed is like having a lifeboat. Professional athletes often hedge their bets with educations that provide employment and income after the no longer can play football, hockey, basketball, etc.

Ask your kids what jobs exist that people need? Ask them which jobs they think will be relevant ten, twenty, thirty years from now? Which of these jobs do they want to do? Then discuss what they need to do to get those jobs. Or, they can be a greeter at Walmart when they are their parents’ or grandparents’ ages. Tell them to look at those greeters, or the older people handing out flyers at Home Depot, or people in their fifties, sixties, seventies, doing minimum wage jobs when other people the same age are comfortably retired or, if still working, are making substantial amounts o money doing a job they want to do.

One doctor I know is still going in to read X-rays two days a week. He’s needed. His skills are wanted, needed and well paid. An editor I know retired and is now making over a hundred dollars an hour doing specialized editing. In one hour, these people make more than those people earning minimum wage in an eight hour day.

The choice is yours.

Getting an education, getting a job

I didn’t go to university to get a job. I went to university to get an education.

university graduates

In 1957 the purpose of going to university was to become educated. However, before I graduated in 1961, the government had become involved. Professors had been badly paid. Universities were strapped for cash. The government agreed to provide funding. There was hot debate about whether to accept the money. Many, seeing the chance that their salaries would rise, that new classrooms would be built, were all for accepting the money. However, others were against taking the money because they said, “He who pays the piper calls the tune.” They were scoffed at . However, there are no free lunches, particularly where governments are involved.
It wasn’t long after government funding was provided that billboards went up saying, “Get a degree, get a job.”

The halls of learning were going to change. Money once provided creates conditions that make it virtually impossible to refuse.

The government wanted more people going to university. The hook was “go to university and get a job.” Except, people like me were taking English, Philosophy, Political Science, Economics. The only one slightly connected to getting a job was Economics and a Bachelor’s level in Economics isn’t going to get anyone a job. A Master’s degree in a specialized area in Economics, like Agricultural Economics, would get someone a job but that was another two years of study.
We graduated able to read and write, to think more clearly (those philosophy courses in Logic), more knowledgeable about the role of government because of Political Science, and with a general idea of how the economy worked (the economics of small business, money and banking, international trade, labour relations). None of these courses provided training. We weren’t in a trade school. We were being provided with knowledge and the tools with which to apply it. It was expected that when we got jobs, we’d get specific training about an area, banking, for example, on the job. At university, we had learned how to learn.

We got jobs. I went into teaching and taught, over my career, in high school, junior college, and university. During that time, I took a year off to get a permanent high school teaching certificate. Then I went to summer school over three years to get a B.Ed. Finally, I went to graduate school to get an MFA. The teaching certificate and the summer schools were a “get a job” education. The MFA wasn’t. It taught me to write and read at a very high level. However, it opened up the possibility of teaching first at a junior college and then at a university. That was simply a bi-product. The purpose was to turn me into a published writer. Fourteen books, twelve plays, scores of articles, an editorship, I can confidently say it did what it was supposed to do.

Unfortunately, the government and the universities had different goals. The government wanted people to obtain degrees because employers gave preference to people with degrees. What the governments didn’t grasp was that that preference was given for the knowledge that came with the degree. All governments saw was people with degrees get jobs. They didn’t care whether anyone actually learned anything. They didn’t put up billboards saying get educated and get a job. If they’d done that, they couldn’t have endlessly tried to force the universities to lower their academic standards and increase their class sizes. The government simply wanted more numbers. Churn out more people with degrees. The result, of course, is that the public bought into the advertising. Get a degree and get a job. Except, after a while, the guarantee of getting a job because you had a degree faded away. Lower academic standards for admittance and graduation and increase numbers and it doesn’t take long for employers to realize that a degree does not mean that someone is educated, knowledgeable, and capable of thinking.

The graduates victimized by this misdirected strategy created and promoted by politicians are left confused, even infuriated because not only does their degree not turn into a guaranteed job but because the costs of a university education have gone up exponentially. Arts students can be taught effectively at a reasonable cost. However, medical students, science students, engineering students have to have expensive equipment, expensive spaces, expensive everything. The tuition cost for many of these programs is astronomical. That cost is spread out over the university so that even if someone like me taking English, Political Science, Philosophy, Economics needs little more than textbooks, the price of the courses still goes up.

The result is headlines blaring that a local barista has a university degree in the Arts or Fine Arts. Of course, it was never intended that courses which educate people rather than train them would guarantee jobs. That’s not the university connection. That’s the politician’s connection.

There is, of course, a solution or, at least, a partial solution that was begun, I believe, at Waterloo, and implemented at the University of Victoria. That is to have a Co-operative Education program. I taught in the Creative Writing Department in the Fine Arts Faculty. How airy fairy is that? Except that people who are learning to read, write and edit are the people who are best able to work in fields where communication is required. Those TV, radio programs, those movies, those brochures at the bank, those reports from the banks, everything that needs to be conceived, written and produced require people who are highly literate. Poets make fine editors. They know to pay attention to words and punctuation and space. Fiction writers and dramatic writers have the skills required to produce material for business and government.

There is nothing wrong and much that is right in marrying job specific opportunities for students where they get to develop particular skills and amass job-particular knowledge. However, it isn’t in the classroom where that should take place. The university’s job is to provide education. The job of the business community, the corporate community is to provide training.

The universities have been meeting their obligation. The corporate community has not. It has not met its obligation at the professional level nor at the trade level. It has, for the most part, shrugged off its responsibility with the attitude that someone else should do that and then it complains loudly that there aren’t the trained workers it needs. The corporate mind-set is always to socialize costs and privatize profits.

Government, and it doesn’t seem to matter what party is in power, needs to disconnect from the “get a degree, get a job” mentality and learn to say, get an education and get a job. Corporate Canada needs to commit to its responsibility in providing work experience for the generation soon to enter the work force.

On Education

I stumbled into university because I had a summer job with a group of guys from a higher social class than me. Their fathers were doctors and lawyers or had good permanent jobs and the families lived in areas like River Heights. When the grades came out, they said to me, “Your grades are as good as ours. Why don’t you come to university?”

University? What was that? My father was a fisherman and, in the off season, he had a barber shop.

One of the guys helped me register. I entered a world of professors, lectures, time tables, libraries, research. Entered is probably too strong a word. I tumbled, stumbled, fell, into a world run by the clock, not the seasons.

It never occurred to me that I was taking philosophy, political science, English, economics, French, so that I could get a job. There already were jobs. I could go commercial fishing. Or I could go to Red River College and take a trade. Be a carpenter like my grandfather. Or I could get a job on the railway like my other grandfather.

Working class to the core, that was us. Graduating from high school was an accomplishment. Many working class kids left after grade ten. Got jobs driving trucks, on construction, on the highway, in maintenance. The ones with parents already in the trades or who understood the importance of a ticket that would allow entrance into a union—plumbers, carpenters, electricians—got an apprenticeship.

I went to university because I wanted an education. I wanted to know, to understand, to think. I wanted to take courses in logic, the theory of the small business, the way Locke and Rousseau and Hobbes thought. I wanted to be able to speak and write and organize.

My education was a family thing. My parents were only able to help a little. My grandparents provided room and board. I had my summer job. It was enough.

I was lucky. Tuition was 300.00 a year. Books probably came to about 100.00. Bus fare was, if I remember correctly, 10 tickets for a dollar. My grandmother sent me off each day with a sandwich and a piece of fruit or a cut up vegetable.

Professors were poorly paid. So poorly paid that it was better financially to be a public school teacher. Then the government got involved. Someone once said there is nothing  more terrifying than a politician turning up at your door and saying, “I’ve come to help you.” It looked good, at first. Professors got paid better.

The government wasn’t interested in educating the public. They were interested in being able to demonstrate that they were doing something to help people get a job. Billboards appeared saying things like “Go to college and get a job.” To the government, university wasn’t about education, it was about being a trade school. It was about helping them get re-elected. Their logic, of course, was absurd.

When I graduated, if I got hired, it wasn’t going to be because I had skills like bookkeeping or driving a semi-trailer. I got hired because I’d shown that I could think, that I had an education that allowed me to read and understand, to paraphrase, to condense, to report, to explain, to organize and had an area of specialized knowledge. Yes, graduates did get jobs but it was, certainly in those days, partly because they were educated but also because the educated usually came from families in the middle class, upper middle class, even the upper class (and, yes, Canada has all those classes), families who had connections, who knew the right people, who had already trained their children in social niceties and behaviors. A degree was a ticket but to cash it in, daddy often picked up the telephone and called a friend.

No wonder that today there are articles about people being angry because the promise of go to university and get a job has been shown to be a fraud. Today, I read an article on a site called Mish’s Global Economic Trend Analysis that 37.5% of Graduates Work in Jobs Requiring No Degree. Graduates and their families are also angry about the cost of that education. I paid 300 dollars tuition for the year. Today, that doesn’t even pay for one half course. There are some colleges and universities where tuition is close to 50,000 dollars a year in the United States. I’d be angry, too, if I’d paid that much money a year in tuition plus other costs for three years and had been told that I was investing that money in a job that was going to pay mega bucks. Especially if when I graduated, I had mega debt and was working as a barista.

In Canada, we don’t have all the private universities that exist in the United States. That may be why that on average, undergraduate students in Ontario who paid the highest fees in Canada paid, on average, $7,180.00. However undergrads in dentistry paid $16,910.00. That’s a lot of moola. How long does it take to save $7,180.00, never mind $16,910.00. At least the dentists assume that they are going to make good money, after, of course, they pay off their debts, buy a practice or set up a practice with all its attendant expenses.

Of course, there are other fees the university collects. Then there’s room and board, travel, books, and who knows what else. A student can end up owing as much money as I paid for my first house.

Part of the problem is that education has always been about prestige. The social ranking of universities worldwide is brutal. Everybody knows where everybody else got their degree and there is a class structure that is unforgiving. Go ahead, just tell someone you graduated from some local college and that your degree is as good as one from Yale, Harvard, Oxford. You may be right. You may be as well educated. It won’t do any good. You’re living at the wrong address in the wrong neighbourhood. People will pay huge amounts of money for a prestigious address.

University administrators are smart people. They know on which side of their bread is buttered. The government has said go to university and get a job. The universities have put money into programs with saleable skills and then reinforced that with Co-operative Education programs. Even our Creative Writing program at the University of Victoria had a Co-op option. You want to be a poet, fine, but go out on work terms, become an editor, learn to write government reports, business reports, brochures, PR, whatever, so when you graduate, you won’t be working as a barista or selling bread in a bakery. Some went the Co-op route. Others chose not to. The ones who went the Co-op route were a help at budget time. We were able to say to the government overseers, see, we’re a trade school, too.

If people think that a university degree is like papers for an electrician or, if they think it should be, god help them. They should be getting an apprenticeship. Or they should be taking dentistry, medical, or pharmacy. There has been a shortage in those areas. Good thing. Those are degrees that are worthless unless there is a job on graduation. That’s the problem with highly focused training.

I often recommended to my students that they get both a university degree and their papers in a trade. As a democracy, we desperately need an educated populace and educated shouldn’t only apply to the middle and upper classes. We need to vote. We need to understand complex issues. We need to be able to see through lies and manipulation. We need to be educated. Being trained won’t help us manage our democracy.

If 37.5% of graduates are working in jobs that don’t require a degree so what? Most degree requirements for jobs are artificial. Over a lifetime, people nowadays change jobs many times. A while ago, I read about a surgeon who quit medicine to become a high school teacher.  High school teachers quit to become real estate agents. So what? I’m not sorry that people in jobs that don’t require a degree are educated.

If you or your kids are thinking of going to university because you think it is going to guarantee you or them a job that pays so much money that the cost, no matter how high it is, doesn’t matter, then give your head a shake. I know an engineer, top notch, has worked for the most prestigious government and private organizations. He’s been unemployed for over three years. India is churning out engineers. Tens of thousands of engineers. They work cheap. So much for the value of all those practical courses.

Personally, I think universities shouldn’t try to be trade schools. They should educate people. Most jobs require a very narrow set of skills that are endlessly repeated. Let employers do the training.