You will be assimilated

Posted on November 13, 2010

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Have you ever visited a place where you knew you shouldn’t stay long, or you would become like everyone else there? Perhaps a pie shoppe with very heavy people, or a gym with people stuck on treadmills who don’t want to go home, or a rustic mountain campground with people who happily bathe weekly? Perhaps each a very pleasant temporary place to be, but a life-changing place to stay?

Maybe I’m unique, a person of extremes, but I am careful in these places and know I need to get up and leave. I see the pleasantness of it, the value of what is happening there, and I lose my perspective on the rest of the world because that place is too dangerously about its one thing. I’m wary of these places now.

Yesterday I visited one of these places unawares. It was a university. A professor was presenting research that is important to me, and I paid to attend a long time ago and waited eagerly to see her briefs. She was talking about women and education, a subject near and dear to my heart. I arrived early, ate the grapes and strawberries provided for breakfast, and sat with my laptop at the ready.

Then she talked. She was funny. She was smart. She lamented that women were not embracing collegiate instruction at the same rate that men were, a local trend that bucks the national trend. She posted lots of graphs and quoted extensively from the young women who participated in her survey.

And I noticed something that bothers me in social science researchers. She was ever so faintly condescending: what I call “poking people with a long stick.” She stopped investigating the “why” (which didn’t seem interesting to her beyond the fact that it wasn’t resulting in her approved-of end) to report the numbers and trends, and her assumption was clear: women should want to go to college, and they should finish. I don’t know that I accept those assumptions as universal goods, but I was very much a minority. I began feeling like I was hearing research on cancer presented by a drug company concerned about maintaining the sales of its cancer-fighting formula.

The whole thing took a sudden ludicrous twist when, in noting that many women articulated the value of education but not necessarily a degree, she said, “they just don’t get it – there’s a disconnect.” My jaw actually dropped while I waited for some clarification for that kind of hubris.

She then said that the single most common denominator in the narratives provided by respondents was that they wanted their children to be happy. “I’m so sick of happy!” she laughed derisively, and the crowd laughed knowingly back, almost patting the heads of those simple-minded, short-sighted respondents who obviously didn’t really know what happiness was. The idea that women could want something for their families beyond a piece of paper that would elevate their economic status should they be forced into a job market was simplistic and foolhardy to her, and to everyone sitting there.

I quietly closed my laptop and left. It is dangerous to be in a place where one group of people laugh at another.

We decry advertisers who have presented one single image of beauty and cling to our individuality to be our own beautiful (even while we buy their products and glance sideways in the mirror.) For some reason, we seem to think that there is one economic status that is acceptable, and we tax and programify until we feel we’ve brought everyone to that level, without a thought that they might want something else more. What is the one definition of rich?

Do we really want a world where everyone lives the same way, any more than we want a world where everyone looks the same way? What is so wrong with someone saying, “I don’t need a degree. I like learning about the things I like.” Or even, “I don’t want to live in a big house. I like mine.” Or worse, “I don’t feel poor. My kids and I are happy.”

I work with people who don’t have as much education or as much confidence as those I was sitting amidst yesterday, and I think I’m familiar with a lot of people from a lot of walks of life. I have a niggling suspicion that has been growing since yesterday that people would be happier where they are if someone wasn’t telling them they should want more; that perhaps, poverty is an artificial construct of the “haves” who are uncomfortable with people who inexplicably choose to be “have-nots.” And worse, that the haves are exacerbating the gap they claim to be working to close by pointing constantly at it and the people on the other side as somehow fundamentally different (and flawed.)

Don’t get me wrong: I think everyone wants to be free. Financial liquidity is a form of freedom. I like education, both learning about what I want and getting a piece of paper. I think it’s good for us to figure out how to help people who want to change their lives to do so, in the way they think is best. But I think the people there in the trenches might have a pretty good idea where they want to go and how to get there too. Maybe they less need someone else’s elaborate program than their encouragement and commitment to be there until their dreams can happen.

I’ve spent the last week writing deep into the night the documents I need to begin my own work. I didn’t realize how passionately I feel that people can be their own solutions to the problems they themselves define until I sat in a room full of people who think that the only solution is to make everyone alike, like them. I’m so glad to go home to my happy children and to a life that is happy, however simple-minded that may be.

By the way, here is the great takeaway from my own path to higher education this past two years: I already knew what I was doing. The piece of paper I’ll get next summer will say exactly that. “You didn’t need this. You just needed the confidence.” I had a professor ask me what the heck I was doing there, and when I told him what I wanted to do, he said, “Well, just go do it.” I’ll finish now because I’m so close (the economics term is “sunk costs”), but I will finish unassimilated. The last thing I’m going to do is threaten someone else with a degree and a retirement plan that forces them to stay in a job they hate.

Resistance is never futile.

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