Why do people still go to grad school? Because our culture has very few visions of what it means to be a winner and a huge number of what it means to be a loser.
Laura McKenna’s piece is part of a perennial microgenre in the world of #Content: the “What Are They Thinking?” piece. It’s a type of essay that presents a certain group’s professional choices as daft and self-injurious, and asks (with more or less faux-sympathy, depending) why they persist. Don’t they know how deluded this is? Don’t they see? The secret sauce in this well-worn type of click-generation is that it provides people who don’t feel very good about their lives with some other group of people who, we are to imagine, feel even worse about theirs. I may never have written that novel; I may not have played past single-A ball; I may have never gotten further than Improv Olympic; but, by god, I’m not some sad French poetry PhD student. That person, that’s the real loser. The person set up as the object of greater scorn isn’t a gas station worker or someone on food stamps, because those people are seen as too lowly to be part of the competition in the first place. The targets have to be people who are seen as potential competition within aspirational culture. The ego-salving function of “What Are They Thinking?” pieces is what they call in the biz the “value added,” the click generator. It’s such a proven revenue generator that Slate hired Rebecca Schuman to do it full time.
The essence of this genre could be seen with the collapse of the legal job market. I grew up in a world in which becoming a lawyer was seen as a mercenary choice, the ultimate example of privileging pecuniary gain over intellectual fulfillment and moral labor. Then the job market for lawyers collapsed. Did we discover new found sympathy for those hurt by this development? No: we instead started to churn out piece after piece asking why people were still going to law school. A type of remorseless self-interest became a type of deluded fantasy in an instant. That’s how the superstructure works. That’s its function.
If you actually want to know why people persist in going to grad school, or trying to be screenwriters or musicians or professional athletes or actors — or, if we’re getting really real about it, journalists and writers, the kind that write for The Atlantic — it’s because our culture insists relentlessly that certain kinds of work have intellectual and aesthetic value, that they are a way to be a Somebody, and also that you never, ever give up on your dreams. There is no message that we deliver to children and adolescents more relentlessly than that they should pursue their dreams with manic focus and unflagging persistence, no matter how hard and often they fail, and that they will be assured of eventual victory. Never, never, never give up. Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t, you’re right! If you believe it, you can achieve it. Go to a middle school sometime. Look at the posters on the wall. It’s like a one-party state, propaganda of the most ubiquitous and intense variety. When I was a long-term sub at my local junior high I was amazed; it was like some sort of totalitarian reeducation camp, with the purpose being to indoctrinate in all who passed through the doors that failure stems always and only from a lack of nerve.
Then, add to that our persistent cultural critique of safe, nondescript office jobs. This is the critique of Office Space, of Dilbert, of Falling Down, of a million cultural portrayals of suburban and workplace ennui, of the slowly suffocating cubicle drone who longs for another life. You can subvert this condition by undermining your job’s actual purpose, as in Workaholics, or you can leave it, as in American Beauty, but you can’t just do your job and find it meaningful. Is that critique fair? No. I’m sure there’s a lot of people who love those jobs and who don’t fit the stereotype at all. But the culture doesn’t value them, and I find that often people defend them more in the abstract than as something they’d pursue themselves. They aren’t our conventional picture of a successful life, not anymore, not after the counterculture. But the problem is that the counterculture that critiqued the Company Man so mercilessly never really came up with a workable replacement. The hippies (scorned) became the yuppies (scorned) not only because they were lured by the temptations of material wealth but because the sexy 25 year old free spirit reliably becomes the sad old 40 year old burnout. This is why we’ve created all these bullshit “arty” corporate jobs in marketing and related fields, why software engineering is discussed in terms of people really making things rather than in terms of sitting at a computer, staring bleary-eyed at your code at 2 AM on a weeknight, because of the hunger to reconcile the artistic imperative with the need to earn, not just to survive but to be considered a valued human being. Starving artists are sexy but it’s not sexy to actually starve. Be cultured, but for god’s sake, you better have a job and a car. You should never give up, but if you’re still struggling to make it as an actor at 40, god, you’re a loser.
So then you take high school status culture and the phenomenon of the Smartest Kids in Class and a genuine and deep love of learning, exploration, and reading, add in the abundant and real pleasures of campus life, the aforementioned insistence to always pursue your dreams, a job market for recent graduates filled with low-wage, low-status, no-job security gigs, and a little in the way of self-delusion and optimism, and yeah. I get it. I mean, I did it! And for me, even as someone with no long-term job at present, it’s been a good bet. For many people it won’t be, though as I will continue to insist, it’s a mark of privilege to think that the PhD class is uniquely immiserated. I mean, just generically, this is true: many people are willing to trade long odds for a chance at great reward. I don’t know how you could be confused by the fact that, in an aspirational culture, people aspire. It’s the American way.
I mean, look at McKenna. You’ll note that she didn’t give up on academia and then go get a job at Geico. She has stayed in an aspirational, creative, intellectually fulfilling field. So do all the people who write academic “quitpieces,” a genre of pure self-congratulation. Those missives aren’t ever written from the perspective of those who have left academia to chase after old fashioned white collar respectability but those whose new job is “writing that novel,” other pursuits that privilege fulfillment over security, just as graduate students do. But that too is our culture: everyone else’s dream is a delusion. Mine is a tale of noble perseverance. Everybody else should be practical.
Of course these are first world problems. The working poor get neither the psychic and cultural benefits of artistic or intellectual fulfillment nor the financial stability of quiet and boring employment. They get grinding poverty. But we have to be aware of these problems because they undercut the notion that capitalism is somehow giving people in the upper echelons everything they need, and because recognizing the sickness within capitalist “success” is necessary to inspire broad rejection of a cruel, embittering, inhumane system.
Now, you can envision a different culture, a healthier culture, in which we had sympathy and support for everyone — where the cubicle worker was understood to be sensibly laboring to avoid poverty, where the beleaguered grad student was recognized as someone guilty only of wanting to live a life of meaning and challenge, where there were more ways to be a winner than a loser. (And where you didn’t have to use the word “innovate” as a transitive verb when describing your job to be seen as a winner.) You can even imagine a socialist system where, because everyone’s basic material needs were accounted for as a matter of course, people were free to negotiate for themselves how much they should value material success and how much they should value psychic success. But capitalism needs to keep everyone working at a manic pace, boosting productivity endlessly and recouping none of it in real wage growth, and that requires the concept of the loser. Once you are among those lucky enough to pay for your basic material needs, the fear of being a loser keeps you motivated to work those 60 hour weeks that people are so proud of in American achievement culture. In a socialist world, in a more human, livable, healthy world, McKenna’s piece wouldn’t need to fulfill its neoliberal function, But then The Atlantic wouldn’t be The Atlantic.
I’ve got a lot of books to write in my life. God willing, someday this will be one of them.