“You with your violent pedagogy, and me with my broken heart!” A dear friend of mine has spent years howling these words at me in a variety of situations, for a variety of purposes. He says, now, that the words first came from an intense desire to have people—myself very much included—embrace the reality that there is more than one means to any end, that adhering to a rigid dogma ignores the beating, breaking hearts. Ignore those, and we will get approximately nowhere we wish or need to go.
I think about this a great deal, especially lately. I moved to the Boston area because I thought that what I wanted to/should want to do was put my graduate degree to work at any of the non-profit organizations ringing the city. It’s been nearly three years since I left Montana with a Master’s Degree, tucked in among my dog and books and skis, and returned to New England. I’ve spent too much of that time thinking that my goal ought to be putting that MS in Environmental Studies to good use for the betterment of the planet through traditional structures. As if the words on a diploma were the magic key that would let me into doing the great work of the world. I’ve complained countless times that I just want a job that will use my brain. And so, still, I clung dogmatically to what was linear and logical and expected. And willfully ignored that such adherence, such expectations, would never heal my broken heart at the state of the world.
My death grip on that violent pedagogy is loosening, finally, this spring. Because, the closer I cleave to the linear and expected and traditional path, the farther away from my heart I feel. I have a file on my computer labeled “Cover Letters.” It contains 156 different cover letters, numerous versions of my resume, and other detritus of my years of running West, looking for a sunrise, job wise. This number doesn’t include the multitude of online application forms I have also submitted. By and large, I hear nothing from most of these schools and organizations and programs where I have applied for communications or outreach or research assistant or donor relations or any of these jobs titles that stick in my throat, that feel as constricting as the pantyhose I’d likely have to wear. But, according to the pedagogy of our country and education system and our metrics for success, these are what I should do. And so I continue, having been told that this is how one makes it, that this is the path towards success, towards happiness.
Doing what I feel obligated to, what I feel that I should, what is supposed get me an A+ in American Dreams…I begin to suspect that this will not make me happy. And, while my memory of Philosophy 101 led me to believe that I would never agree with Emmanuel Kant in any regard, his line that “to secure one’s own happiness is a duty,” has been ringing in my head for the past few months as I stumble though, striving to figure life out.
Currently, I waitress three days a week. If I think about this too much one way, it hurts terribly. I have something better to offer the world than a (barely) passable cappuccino, and it burns that I cannot find the right context to give what I so desperately long to share. But, clearly, the traditional structures of American life are not that into what I have to give. The job market for creative writers with a burning passion to guide people towards loving the world enough to save it, is, surprisingly, nonexistent. Funny, because I can’t think of anything we need more.
And here is the deeper rub of the violent pedagogy of the American Dream, educational structures, and job market: student loans. In a nutshell, too many others and I are in heart-stopping debt because of our educations. The rules of the game, as I understood them at the outset of college, of graduate school, were: swallow the bitter pill and take the loans, get a good education, and that education will land you to a job where you can pay back those loans. (Ideally, in time to buy a nice car, a house, a lot of short-lived, disposable crap, marry the flawless love of your life, and start popping out more little Americans, who in turn with require more expensive educations and who will consume an unholy amount of MORE ephemeral gadgetry.)
Partially because I was unable to find a job with my undergraduate education that would enable me pay back my undergraduate debt, I attended graduate school, where I re-entered the same game. They say insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results, and I admit that I should have looked more closely into the financial realities of a MS in Environmental Studies on the American job market. But, again, with over 156 job applications over the course of the 153 weeks since my graduation, and thirteen part-time, temporary, and seasonal jobs since obtaining my degree, I begin to suspect that failure does not lie solely with me. Or perhaps it does, but it is not a failure of effort or hard work. This is another piece of the American mythology I take issue with, that breaks my heart—that education, hard work, and committed determination will result in success. I have been triying, as best I can by the lights of my education, to adhere to that ideology, to play that game, as I understood the rules. But it isn’t working, on any level.
And, part of this struggle may come from the heart and subject of my particular education. In college I studied Environmental Studies and Creative Writing and Philosophy and Outdoor Studies and African Studies. I’ve never been on track to be an international financial analyst or, really, anything other than the sort of dreamily indignant writer that I am, hoping and striving to make the world a better place. I believe with every fiber of my being that this is why we are here. And I cannot fathom how this goal can fall outside any pedagogy, any path towards or metric of a successful life. Regardless, the definition and direction of my education was never mentioned as part of the student loan bargain—nor should it be. Should education be fueled only by what will net the student the highest salary? Should poorer students not be enabled to pursue their passions? Are we, as a country, to lose or limit the love of learning? That is a truly violent and vile pedagogy, and one that feels more cruel and more real every time I have emails from my student loan companies sitting alongside job rejections in my inbox.
As this system is broken, I see fewer and fewer reasons to cling to it. There is a time to leave a sinking ship, and for me, as much as I am able (while avoiding default on my loans, because I cannot abide the sick feeling of indebtedness), I believe that this time is now. This is what makes my waitressing job bearable, this feeling that I can drop out of the system, exit the argument, and refuse to play by the violent rules of a broken system. My employment need not be, should not be, the source and food of my passions. (As another friend says, “you shouldn’t make a whore out of your true love.”) The violent pedagogy does not understand passion, and if it cannot, then at my core, I have nothing in common with it. Outside the boundaries of expectation, the ruts and routines that catch us, drag us down in a keening of frustration and unkind sense of failure, outside these structures this is where the broken hearts will come together, this is where the strength of humanity is. And here, with our hearts cracked and bleeding with joy and labor and love, is where we can start down our intersecting, uniquely passionate and effective paths towards something better than what we have known. I suspect that it will be more wonderful than we can yet imagine.
God knows there is enough violence in this world without visiting it upon ourselves.