Savvy Advice From My Cousin Vinny about an Education Worth Having

When I was 18, I thought I’d be an aeronautical engineer in the Air Force.  I went to an engineering school and majored in mechanical engineering, but I also did a big project on the military-industrial complex and minored in U.S. history.  Turns out that I did do engineering in the Air Force, specifically software testing and project management, but I soon moved into history and got an MA and D.Phil. focusing on science and technology.  Meanwhile, forty years later I still find myself writing about the military-industrial complex.  My “broader” education helped me to move away from engineering into fields that over time interested me more.

College is (or should be) about a lot more than earning a specialized degree and then cashing in.  In retrospect, half of my college experience was about living on my own and with roommates, growing up, and making friends.  Maturing.

You rarely know what your career arc will be.  What you want at 18 years of age may not be what you want at 22 or 32.  A broader education can give you the tools to branch out and pursue exciting opportunities as they come along.  All these things were on my mind as I read the following stimulating article by my longtime friend, M. Davout.  W.J. Astore

Even in The Matrix, there’s more to life than code.

An Education Worth Having

M. Davout

My son, who aspires to be a successful software developer and entrepreneur, applied to colleges this year and is finally getting word back from the universities to which he applied. The school he preferred, a prestigious state institution focused on technical fields, rejected him and the disappointment (particularly, and perhaps even more, for his parents) was great. As other rejections came in from universities that were, in retrospect, obvious longshots for my son, I felt the need to reach out to an older cousin who recently retired after a long and successful career working in technical support, sales, and then in upper management in a globally-dominant company that sells both computer hardware and software.   

As a native-born kid in the suburbs, I always looked on my cousin with admiration for how, coming to the country at the age of ten without any English, he was able to navigate the tough immigrant neighborhood of Boston’s North End and managed, through determination and hard work, to get an education at a local technical college and, afterwards, a well-paying job at a computer hardware company. Over his long employment there, he rose in the corporate ranks, while continuing to advance his technical education during nights and weekends. But there was also, I should admit, some condescension—as a native-born speaker benefitting from the well-funded public schools of the suburbs, I was able eventually to get into an elite liberal arts university whose education I considered superior to the narrow technical one that my cousin presumably had.     

When I reached out to my cousin for advice about my son I expected full-throated support for a path that was practical, realistic, and single-mindedly attentive to what the marketplace promised in the way of lucrative careers. In other words, as a smug liberal arts professor, I expected my cousin to conform to my preconceptions about the values and character of business people. What I got (as demonstrated in my cousin’s replies pasted in below) was something different, a demonstration that the values of broadmindedness can flourish in many different places including the business world and that a liberal arts college professor can be as narrow-minded as they come.    

I conveyed to my cousin that my son loved to code, was very focused on privacy software development as a career, and had ambitions to make a lot of money, to which he answered: “Yes, youth always thinks that way. As you know he needs a base education so that he can do that. Focusing on security software is fine, but he needs general computer understanding, hardware and software, along with marketing and business.”

I mentioned that over the last year, my son had more than once questioned why he has to spend four years in college if he already knows what he wants to do and has developed coding skills. My cousin responded: “He thinks he might have, but I assure you he has not. If he has the skills, school should help bring them further out.”

Ordinarily, I would insist on my son going to college. However, a software development friend had mentioned that his nephew successfully attended a software coding academy, which teaches coding skills over a two to three month intensive (9-5 each weekday) schedule. Tuition is $12-14K but the graduates leave with excellent prospects to start in the field at $70+K. I thought this might be something for my son. My cousin, the computer business guy, expressed skepticism: “Which academies in particular do you have in mind? As you know he should have a rounded education, especially in computers, there are many facets, focusing on just one thing might get boring, and it limits his personality.”

When I mentioned that my software friend had said that one can make a good salary without a college degree (though management jobs did usually require a BS or BA) and that half of the developers working at his companies don’t have college degrees, my cousin responded: “Yes, but the game is long term, Tino might think this is what he wants now, but only with a broader experience can he then be sure. At the end of the day, he should have the biggest say, if he is excited about coding academy, maybe he should try it. But remind him that being rounded is better than just one super skill. He might like coding now, but who knows in the future.”

In his long and successful career in business, my cousin had acquired a respect for broader education that was based, unlike my own, on the experience of working with diverse people in complex and evolving organizations, operating in-country and overseas, responding to the varying demands of customers and bosses, staying abreast of technological developments and political changes, all the while pursuing lifelong learning. I realize now that I sold him short and am grateful for his teaching me how I can better convey to my son that a broader education will serve him well not only in business but in life.

In the USA, Life Is Incredibly Cheap

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America’s counterfactual leader, hands posed like pistols, telling it like it isn’t

W.J. Astore

The coronavirus has made one thing clear: life is incredibly cheap in the USA.  Or so it seems to our leaders, who are desperate to put America back to work by Easter in two weeks’ time, irrespective of the death toll that would result.  It’s all about getting back to “normal,” keeping the wheels of capitalism rolling along, and the profits rolling in for corporate America.

Capitalism is America’s true national religion, and money is our god.  Our leaders make decisions consistent with that belief system.  And, as Dorothy Day, the famous Catholic activist for the poor, said: “Our problems stem from our acceptance of this filthy, rotten system.”

Worth citing here is Caitlin Johnstone, who in a recent article noted how America’s response to COVID-19 illustrates the pathologies of market-driven capitalism and the politicians who so willingly serve it:

The corporate cronyism of America’s political system has been highlighted with a massive kleptocratic multitrillion-dollar corporate bailout of which actual Americans are only receiving a tiny fraction. Instead of putting that money toward paying people a living wage to stay home during a global pandemic, the overwhelming majority of the money is going to corporations while actual human beings receive a paltry $1,200 (which they won’t even be getting until May at the earliest) at a time of record-smashing unemployment.

America’s capitalism worship has been highlighted with Wall Street Journal headline “Dow Soars More Than 11% In Biggest One-Day Jump Since 1933” running at the exact same time as “Record Rise in Unemployment Claims Halts Historic Run of Job Growth — More than 3 million workers file for jobless benefits as coronavirus hits the economy“. Stocks are booming, Amazon is surging, and mountains of wealth are being transferred to sprawling megacorporations, while actual human beings are terrified of what the future holds.

Nice to know a few are profiting while so many worry, suffer, and die.  But should we be that surprised by how callous America’s leaders are?

I recall reading Daniel Ellsberg’s book on U.S. planning for nuclear war.  Sixty years ago, U.S. leaders were prepared to kill 600 million people (that’s not a typo) in their efforts to “win” the Cold War.  As I wrote about in December 2017:

U.S. nuclear war plans circa 1960 envisioned a simultaneous attack on the USSR and China that would generate 600 million deaths after six months.  As Daniel Ellsberg noted, that is 100 Holocausts.  This plan was to be used even if China hadn’t directly attacked the U.S., i.e. the USSR and China were lumped together as communist bad guys who had to be eliminated together in a general nuclear war.  Only one U.S. general present at the briefing objected to this idea: David M. Shoup, a Marine general and Medal of Honor winner, who also later objected to the Vietnam War.

Notoriously, General William Westmoreland once mused that “The Oriental doesn’t put the same high price on life as does a Westerner.  Life is plentiful.  Life is cheap in the Orient.”  That philosophy helped to justify massive killing of the Vietnamese people (perhaps as many as three million) in a futile quest to “win” the Vietnam War.

Thinking about Westmoreland’s musing in light of our government’s response to COVID-19, as well as past plans for “winning” a nuclear war and prevailing in Vietnam by killing everything that moved, one wonders about which value system truly esteems life.  It sure doesn’t seem to be the “Western” model as espoused by our leaders.

Bonus Lesson: In its daily send out, the New York Times had this article today: FACT CHECK: “Trump’s Baseless Claim That a Recession Would Be Deadlier Than the Coronavirus,” by LINDA QIU.  The opposite is more likely to be true, according to research and experts.

A Cherokee Parable

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A good friend sent me this parable.  Succinct and telling, I hope you agree.

One evening an old Cherokee told his grandson about a battle that goes on inside people. He said, “My son, the battle is between 2 wolves inside us all.

One is Evil. It is anger, envy, jealousy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.

The other is Good. It is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith.”

The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather: “Which wolf wins?”

The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.”

W.J. Astore