Final Thoughts

While searching for jobs over the past couple of months, it has occurred to me how much I’ve learned from this project. Mainly, I learned that it doesn’t matter (that much) what you majored in. What matters is how you use that major. English degrees can be used as gateways to completely different jobs like helicopter cockpit designer, lawyer, FBI agent, and emergency planner. This means that people are also not stuck in one job for the rest of their lives. Most people change jobs a handful of time before ending up in one place. Some of the skills that people learn with an English major are reading and writing, storytelling, synthesizing a large amount of information and reducing it to a summary, effective communication, understanding a deeper message beneath the surface message.

This means that I’ve also learned that English degrees can be commodified to benefit the one percent. There is a place in the capitalist system for what was once a leisure activity. It was an interesting discovery for someone about to join the workforce with an English degree. On the one hand, everything I’ve learned from this project has been a huge relief. I am so glad I don’t have to worry about getting a job because english is “useless” or a “waste of time.” I’m so glad I will be able to change jobs, effectively communicate the skills have I learned at Denison, and that I won’t be stuck doing only those skills forever.

I am not so glad that I now have to sell myself and my labor to a company that will use my knowledge to get more money. I am not so glad to learn nothing is safe from capitalistic exploitation.

While searching for jobs, I discovered that it’s hard to feel passionate about a job or a career path that feeds into a system that doesn’t benefit me. For example, I could get a job in marketing and it would be interesting and a new challenge and for the most part I would enjoy it, but I know (thanks a lot C. Wright Mills) that my labor will be used to make rich people richer. Designing new ad campaigns for Coke or Old Navy wouldn’t help anyone. It wouldn’t address any of the issues I learned about at Denison like wealth inequality or racism. I’m not sure I would feel fulfilled knowing my job as a marketing agent would be essentially tricking people into buying something they don’t need.

I had a similar experience while taking OnBoard classes provided by the Center for Career Exploration and Development about professional communication and the principles of marketing. I realized why this kind of information is generally excluded from Denison’s liberal arts curriculum. It’s surface deep. It is intended to make the reader a more efficient worker bee. I learned how to phrase a proper memo, how to divide populations into market segments, and what phrases to use to convince said segments to buy things. This kind of information is about exploiting other people and making yourself easier to exploit. It would be very easy to trace the connection between this information and how using it makes money for rich people.

So I understand how my major can be used in the working world. I am not afraid that I will graduate and be unable to find a job or pay any bills. The question for me is no longer the annoying uncle at a party question (i.e. “What are you going to do with an English degree?”). My concern for the future is more about how I will be able to do a job I know is not benefitting me, a job that fits into a system that I dislike. I’ve realized that this will be a challenge for the rest of my life. Of course, this isn’t to say that this whole project has only led me to one pessimistic conclusion. I think it’s better to understand how I fit into the larger system, regardless of whether or not I like said system. This way I can search for jobs that better fulfill my desire to improve the world. I could work for a non-profit or find a well-paying job and volunteer in my spare time.

This project has opened my eyes to new ways of thinking about the working world and English as a major. I feel like I understand what the speaker at my 2012 induction ceremony was talking about when he said liberal arts is more than a way of learning but a way of life.

 

Interview Observations

After reviewing the videos on iMovie in order to start making a collaborative video for the English department and interviewing more people after these reviews, there are certain ideas that I have noticed almost every alumni touches on. The most common shared idea is that in the job market, it doesn’t matter what you major in, but how you use your major to sell your skill sets. Essentially, most alumni believe that your undergrad degree does not determine your career but what you decide to do with it will. This can be proved not only through the anecdotes of individual alumni but by the diversity of their careers. Reid Benes designed helicopter cockpits. Susan Butterworth works on QVC selling gardening tools. Scott Barsotti writes plays that are put on around the country and Megan Flanagan works in a software start-up as a PR manager. Of course, many alumni that I have interviewed attended some kind of graduate school in order to specialize in their fields but their ability to do well in these vastly differing fields was in part a result of their Denison English degree.

Subsequently, most alumni mention the myth surrounding English majors and their limited career options (teaching or making coffee) and almost all of them advise against believing it. In fact, the biggest struggle most alumni faced was not finding a career in their desired field but deciding what career path they wanted to follow. There are so many options open to a liberal arts student that it can be difficult for a graduate to choose their career. Additionally, some alumni advise current English majors to try multiple fields of work before settling into one position. I have spoken with few (if any) alumni who were dissatisfied with their career or choice in major.

 

Video Archiving Updates

For the last two weeks, I have been researching video editing and archiving software. While I had once been quite hopeful about Premiere Pro, an Adobe video editing software, because of its supposed speech analysis abilities, I was disappointed to find the feature was removed from the newest versions and no previous versions could be downloaded. As a result, I decided to abandon Premiere Pro and research OHMS in greater depth.

Oral History Metadata Synchronizer (OHMS) is an open source video indexing software created by The Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History at the University of Kentucky that allows archivists to mark specific, searchable topics in the oral history videos. The great thing about OHMS is its ability to upload a thesaurus of similar key terms an outside researcher might use to search the videos. For example, a student might want to see how many English Alumni have studied abroad. While we may have indexed the moments in each video when the interviewee mentions going abroad, we may not have used the same exact key words the student uses (e.g. “off-campus study” versus “study abroad”). OHMS would allow us to index each of these moments with a variety of similar terms in order to maximize the usefulness of the search tool.

There are two related problems raised by OHMS. First, OHMS has no upload feature, it is essentially a metadata overlay for videos stored on other websites. So OHMS can create metadata for a video uploaded to YouTube but it has no storage feature itself. This is only a problem because as of right now, the videos are stored on Google Drive which does not create individual URLs for every video. It will only play the videos. In order to use OHMS, the videos would have to be uploaded elsewhere. The second problem is related to the first in this storage aspect. While it seems unlikely, it is possible that OHMS will only allow an archivist to use the metadata created using its software if the videos are displayed using the OHMS video interface. I say this is unlikely because it would be odd for an open source software that comes in two pieces (video indexing and video display) to force the user to use both pieces. Nevertheless, it is an important aspect to research as we hope to only use the indexing software.

In the future, I will look more into OHMS and attempt to answer these questions. I will also create videos for the English Department/Alumni Relations using the interviews we already have using iMovie.

Professionalism and the Travelling Mattress Sale

 

For the last year, I have been working as an order form writer for a friend who runs a business selling mattresses out of high school gyms as a form of fundraiser. This incredibly odd concept is difficult to explain to the people surrounding the different high schools we work in each weekend and as a result, it is a challenge to convince people that this is a legitimate business and not the questionable, possible pyramid scheme it seems to be. As a result, my boss has implemented dozens of new rules in an attempt to seem more “professional.”

When I started working for my friend a year ago, the sales were very casual and relaxed. I was allowed to wear any casual work clothes I owned. I was allowed to bring snacks and I was encouraged to bring a book or homework to do when the sales became slow. Over the last year, though sales have increased, my friend has made a lot of changes. For one thing, I now have a uniform to wear. I’m no longer allowed to eat at the table, look at my phone or computer, or occupy myself in any way not relating to mattresses, even when the sales are slow. While these all seem like rather standard workplace rules, they reflect a change similarly noted by Mills in White Collar. “The professional wears a badge of prestige. Any position that is ‘responsible and steady’ and, above all, that carries prestige may become known, or at least promoted by its members, a profession. Real-estate men become realtors; undertakers become morticians; advertising men and public-relations councils, radio commentators and gag men, interior decorators and special-effects experts all try to look and act ‘professional.’ This trend is allowed and encouraged, if not implemented” (Mills 138).

What I find odd about the desperation for the prestige granted to professionals, is that the changes enacted haven’t impacted sales at all. In fact, all of these changes have come about just in the last two months, at which point our sales have plateaued. Our level of professionalism hasn’t done anything to change the number of mattresses we sell. The last three weeks, we’ve actually done worse than we expected and have never been more professional. So professionalism does nothing for the business financially.

Why bother making rules that do nothing more than restrict the freedom of the employees then? I believe my friend, who I will call Colin from now on, is using the rules as a way to make himself appear more professional. As Mills explains, “the businessman, it has been thought, egotistically pursues his self-interest, whereas the professional man altruistically serves the interest of others” (Mills 138) The sales are intended to act as a fundraiser for a group at each of the high schools we visit. What Colin felt to be the ingenious aspect of this business was that this fact alone should have made him appear altruistic to the customers. “We are able to sell the mattresses at a bargain price because we aren’t paying for retail space and nearly 25 percent of the sale goes to the football team,” he’ll say. But it’s 2015 and people are familiar with this rhetoric. Pitches are no longer convincing when they sounds too selfless. It’s 2015 and professionalism is no longer a new fad like it was in Mills’s time. Professional is essentially a synonym for businessman and the public is much harder to convince of any altruism in business. I actually think we came off as more sincere when we seemed less professional because in a world where everyone is desperately grabbing at the prestige awarded professionals, a small, somewhat generous business like Colin’s seemed genuine and possibly refreshing.

More than anything, I believe the public is exhausted from the constant formality demanded in professional settings. A white collar worker “must always be the standardized loser: he must smile and be personable, standing at the counter or waiting in the outer office. In many strata of white collar employment, such traits as courtesy, helpfulness, and kindness, once intimate, are now part of the impersonal means of livelihood. Self-alienation is thus an accompaniment of his alienated labor” (Mills xvii). This expectation of self-repression is so common in all workplaces (including mine, now) that I believe it turns people away because it creates an atmosphere people resent.

College and Professional Choices

 

Denison payments are due and it’s time for the panic to set in. I’m panicking that I might not have enough money to finish and my twin little brothers are panicking about starting their freshman year and paying for the years to come. One of whom, who I am going to call Jacob for the sake of his anonymity, worried so much he debated not going at all. This post is about the conversation between Jacob and my parents that followed.

When Jacob saw how much he would have to pay in loans after just one year of college, he doubted whether anything could be worth that much money. Who can blame him? Almost every college bound senior faces the same financial dilemma and I would have thought nothing of the situation had I not read White Collar by C. Wright Mills.

Of course the typical parental comments came out. “Nothing is set in stone.” “Do what ever makes you happy.” “Don’t throw away this opportunity.” But when it came down to it, their arguments about why he should go boiled down to their aspirations for Jacob to belong to the white collar professional classes to which they never belonged. What surprised me most, was that this argument was the one that held the most sway with Jacob. Simply listing people Jacob admires and mentioning the fact that they have college degrees—even degrees unrelated to their field of work—convinced Jacob to give Denison a shot, expensive as it may be.

Mills saw the necessity of college back in 1953, when his book, White Collar, was published. As Mills puts it, “Rather than the traditional inheritance of son from father, or the free liberal choice of occupation on an open market, educational institutions and vocational guidance experts would train and fit individuals of various abilities and class levels into the levels of the pre-existing hierarchies” (Mills 111). While he clearly opposes the role the educational system plays in forcing young people to choose careers with a seeming rigidity, he recognizes that it is no longer the case that professions are passed from father to son. I know that neither myself nor any of my three brothers intend to take over the photography studio my dad took over from his father. Instead, we all intend to pursue some specific field of work using whatever amount of college we have completed. As Mills says, the hierarchies are pre-existing. Our parents aspire for the four of us to jump up a level in the social hierarchy from where we are now (which is not quite at the white-collar professional level).

So what I really got from the conversation between Jacob and my parents was not that they wanted something better for their son—of course they do, that’s what every parent wants for their kids—but that Jacob decided to spend the money and take the loans not because it was necessarily what he wanted or what he aspired to but because he wanted to get a well-paying job. He is making life choices based upon what kind of work he wants to do when he is in his late thirties. And while this would have been unremarkable to me in the past, White Collar and all of the other anti-capitalist pieces of writing I have read have shown me that this is not the only way to set one’s priorities. Work and more importantly, money do not have to be the end goal of our life choices.

The Case of the Foreman in Orange is the New Black

The new season of the popular Netflix show, Orange is the New Black, saw Litchfield Penitentiary undergo a drastic change in management. While Litchfield was originally to be closed due to financial problems, it was “saved” by the corporation MCC, Management and Corrections Corporation. This change resulted in a new hierarchy of power.

Prior to MCC’s takeover, Joe Caputo was the warden of Litchfield and the equivalent of C. Wright Mills’s foreman described in his book, White Collar. Caputo was the director of all of Litchfield’s activities and employees. After the takeover, Danny Pearson, one of MCC’s higher-ups, claims that the position of warden was “absorbed” by MCC, meaning that it no longer exists. When Caputo questions Pearson about this change, Pearson insists that the role does not exist, though his role as “Director of Human Activity” is essentially that of a warden. When Caputo further questions Pearson about his role in the corporate hierarchy, Pearson rapidly rattles off a list of corporate positions and illustrates them on a white board. While he firmly insists he is not Caputo’s boss as they are “on the same level [in the hierarchy],” his illustration shows that he speaks directly to corporate and reiterates their orders to Caputo. Pearson is also the son of one of MCC’s higher ups, hired not because of his qualifications (in fact, he dropped out of Ohio University) but because his father wanted to give him the opportunity to prove himself capable in the business world. It is Pearson, not Caputo, who is invited to the meetings with the upper management of MCC even though Caputo is an expert when it comes to understanding the daily operations of Litchfield. Because he deals directly with inmates and guards, Caputo is not considered corporate material.

Like Mills’s foreman, Caputo was once a master of his trade. He trained the new guards in self-defense and proper procedure when handling issues between inmates. In Mills’s words, Caputo was “the master craftsman: he knew more about the work processes than any of the men he bossed” (Mills 87). However, Pearson’s managerial position over Caputo allowed him to trump Caputo’s plans in order to save MCC money just as Mills’s foreman is perpetually undercut by upper management. Mills explains, “Each staff innovation, of personnel specialist, safety expert, time study engineer, [director of human activity], diminishes the foreman’s authority and weakens the respect and discipline of his subordinates. The foreman is no longer the only link between worker and higher management, although, in the eyes of both, he is still the most apparent link in the elaborate hierarchy of command and technique between front office and workshop” (Mills 88).

When an inmate goes missing due to a clerical error, Caputo is expected to bring her back without the help of the police or state troopers as that would make his “boss,” Pearson, look bad to his father. Caputo is expected to do the dirty/unfavorable work for MCC without causing a fuss. Mills describes this change when he says, “the pace and character of work in the middle management are coming increasingly to resemble those in the lower ranks of the management hierarchy” (Mills 87). Caputo is expected to do the job of one of the guards, one of his own subordinates.

The pretense of corporate life is shown when Caputo and Pearson go to meet with Pearson’s father (who is as of yet unnamed). Pearson Sr. invites Caputo and his son to a whiskey tasting where he pretentiously tells them to “chew” the whiskey in order to really experience it’s flavor. Pearson Sr. is testing Caputo as well as his son. He wants to force them to put up with his formalities just as Nancy Chorpenning was tested when she went to a lunch interview and was expected to order some form of alcohol. Her new bosses wanted to know if she would be able to entertain clients and whether she fit in with their style of business. Pearson Sr. wants to know if Caputo is able to play the corporate game as well.

As the season progresses, the guards, who are now unsatisfied with their lack of hours and poor working conditions decide to unionize. Caputo is expected to keep everyone happy and willing to work. As Mills puts it, “He is to develop discipline and loyalty by using his own personality as the main tool of persuasion” (Mills 90). Initially, Caputo is on the union side but after an interaction with Natalie Figueroa, his old boss and a business expert, he is convinced to give up his sense of morality and duty to the people in his charge in order to help himself, namely by crushing the union and sucking up to the higher ups at MCC. He has decided to—in the words of Chorpenning—“drink the corporate Kool-Aide.” Mills explains the exact same reason for this decision in reference to the foreman when he states, “The foreman’s anxiety [about being isolated] springs from the fact that the union looks after the workmen; the employer us able to look after himself; but who will look after the foreman?” (Mills 89). The answer Caputo came to is himself. He is the only one who will look out for his best interest.

This entire subplot of business and frustrating bureaucratic nonsense is a familiar one and the negligent, cost-cutting, machine-like portrayal of big business is predictable and expected though nevertheless satisfying to watch like the villain we all love to hate. However, to C. Wright Mills, I imagine there is nothing about this subplot that does not seem dystopic and possibly worse than anything he could have imagined. The idea that prisons could be incorporated and used for slave labor is nothing short of Mills’s worst nightmare and yet to me, this story is almost cathartic as I get to watch the stories of big business with which I have grown up played out and validated.

This (partially imagined) difference in reaction is due to the fact that Mills wrote White Collar at a time when the U.S. was becoming more incorporated, more managerial but I am watching the phenomena play out after the U.S. has become more incorporated than Mill could imagine. To me, there would be absolutely nothing remarkable about Caputo’s story unless I read White Collar. None of the bureaucratic formalities seemed odd or out of place to me as they would for Mills because Mills was writing about a societal phenomenon at a time when no one thought about or realized on a grand scale how the U.S. was changing (at least from what I can gather from talking with my grandparents and older relatives). I, on the other hand, cannot imagine a world that is not this way. Everyone is aware of their position in the hierarchy of power in the U.S., in the corporate sphere that is our entire lives. People just don’t know that their lifestyle can be any different. Basically, what I’m saying is Mills’s dystopian nightmare he saw slowly coming to fruition throughout his lifetime is my normal. So watching Caputo get pushed into a no-win situation between the guards and MCC is satisfying in that it confirms what we already believe to be true about big business and bureaucracy—that corporations are evil and don’t care about anything except creating value for the shareholders.

This is not an original idea for a story or a subplot. It is not as if no one has ever portrayed big business in a bad light before. What is unique about this story is that it portrays a very real, very not-well-known fact, that prisons are becoming privately incorporated, that the United States government is allowing private businesses to make money off of the human beings left in their charge, which to me, begs the question, would this story ever appear on a major media network?

While Netflix may have made deals with large corporations such as Disney and Comcast in the past, it is not owned by any of the major six media conglomerates, Disney, General Electric, Viacom, CBS, News Corp, and Time Warner. These six corporations control ninety-percent of the media in the United States. A major part of their role in society is to tell stories—whether they be news stories or sitcoms—that keep the population placated and under control. This means perpetuating the Golden Myth of the American Dream and pulling oneself up by their bootstraps, it means showing that the underdog can (and should) win, and it definitely means not showing the inefficiency and negligence of the corporations that have taken control of almost every penitentiary in the United States. Prisons regulate and control our society, showing that they fail to keep likeable characters like those in Orange is the New Black safe and treated with some level of decency, showing that the corporations are ineffective and cruel (and that they ultimately win—as they did when breaking Caputo’s resolve to act morally—would never be in the interest of the media conglomerates.

The Literature Question Guilt Trip

One of the consistent aspects of the interviews we have conducted is the way in which people answer the question about how literature impacts their lives today. Almost every interviewee said that they did not have time to read literature. Many people are so overwhelmed by work that they simply say they are unable to spend any time reading, though all interviewees express a desire to read more. Work becomes the center of many of our interviewee’s lives so that all other activities, especially non-productive, leisure activities like reading are pushed to the side.

For example, Nancy Chorpenning, a small business advisor says, “I hate to say that my reading habits now are really business focused.” While she says that she thinks of F. Scott Fitzgerald when she thinks of literature and leisure reading, she mostly reads books that relate to her work.

The interesting part about this seemingly obvious fact is that so many people express guilt over their inability to read more or embarrassment over the content of their so-called non-literature reading. Nancy “hates to say” she isn’t reading what she thinks of as literature. One interviewee, who chooses to remain anonymous, said that while she does have time to read with her kids, she “only” reads mystery novels in her free time. She does not consider her reading academic or rigorous enough to be worthy of her degree in English. Another interviewee, Lauren Saks, a grad student and violin player says, “It’s like the one thing I regret is that I feel like I don’t have any time to. Um, yeah. [Laughs]. Cause if I’m, like if I have spare time and I’m—I always feel guilty if I’m not practicing music or writing music or something like that, which is bad. [Laughs].”

The only participant who claims to frequently read what she calls literature (by her own definition), is Anne Weinberg, who belongs to a book club, and who seems to be the only participant so far, whom I would not consider a white-collar worker. Every single other interviewee is either a student/part time worker, or a white-collar professional and all of them regret their inability to read the amount and “quality” of literature they desire.

It is as if the interviewees feel guilt over having less leisure time than they perceive they should. I believe this is the case because the little leisure time they have is spent attending to other life issues and mentally relaxing. Reading requires a great amount of leisure time simply because it takes longer to read a novel than it does to watch a movie. While a novel may be mentally stimulating, it can be frustrating leaving an unresolved plot until more time is available to finish it. Movies and television shows are more appealing for those with little leisure time because they require less of a time commitment for almost the same amount of pay off when the story resolves. So while interviewees may believe they feel guilty because they spend their time watching television rather than reading literature, in reality, they simply do not have time to read large amounts of text, especially after spending such a large amount of time working. I believe most people do not have the mental stamina to read a novel before bed as so many interviewees mention that they wish they could.

So what can we take from this pattern of guilt being expressed for lack of leisure time? I think that a lot of workers, not just our interviewees believe that they should hold themselves to the standards of the old middle/upper classes who had a large amount of leisure time at their disposal, time that was often spent reading and educating oneself. The mastery of and ability to discuss subjects like literature has been upheld by our society as the marker of a successful, well-rounded person. Although the workload and pay have been drastically changed from prior to the era of the white-collar worker up until now, the standard for success has hardly changed at all, save to become possibly more rigorous. Now, everyone expects themselves to read like a wealthy aristocrat while simultaneously working at jobs that require more and more of one’s time. Thus, our interviewees express guilt over the fact that they are unable to read as much as they believe they “should.”

I will be interested to see if this pattern continues with our upcoming interviews.

Making a New Myth about English Majors

The myth that English majors have no prospects in the job market is more than pervasive, it has become the framework for the way people studying English talk about their choice in major, that is to say defensively. Students don’t talk about studying English without justifying their choice, explaining their career plan, or in some way tackling the elephant that pops up in every room the moment majoring in English is brought up, the question “What are you going to do with a degree in English?” I used to jump to my own academic defense in the same breath that I announced my major.

In a way, it’s understandable. English majors do not have obviously profitable skills in the same way students studying accounting or biochemistry do. For English majors there is always some level explanation required when marketing oneself.

And it is not as if students with other majors (even other non-humanities majors) are never asked what career they plan to pursue. There is, however, a difference in the way that these non-humanities students are asked about their career options. Most non-humanities majors are asked “What do you want to do with ____ major?” The important word here is “want.” With other majors there is a greater perception of choice. The common discourse about these students is ‘of course a pre-med or economics student will find a job.’ The question is only about where. This is not the case with English majors. When I am asked, “What are you going to do with and English degree?” it is a challenge to me to defend my choice in the face of capitalistic myths about the usefulness of English. It is a quiz to see whether I have a plan for my future. The implication is that if I do not have such a plan, then I will not find a job.

What I found fascinating about the interviews we conducted on Alumni Weekend was that while English alumni struggled at first to find work, almost all of them seemed to somewhat figure out their path relatively quickly. Of course, there is no cookie-cutter path for English grads, so every interview was different from the others. Still, all four of the interviewees were able to pursue their interests and find jobs, if not careers. This success rate—four out of four interviewees finding work relative to their interests—may be attributed to the fact that only driven, out-going alumni volunteered to be interviewed. This possibility should not dampen the outlook of English majors, though because while it may not be true that all that you have to do in order to find a career in your field is want it enough, there is certainly a better job market for English majors than the common myth has us believe. The story society does not tell English majors—or anyone else—is that there are jobs out there that require reading and writing skills, jobs that most of us have ever heard of or thought were necessary.

So while the point of this post is not to say that we live in a Utopia in which there is a profession for every possible interest and an unlimited job market waiting for liberal arts graduates, there is a problem with our current rhetoric about English majors and liberal arts in general, namely that it is unnecessarily negative. After just six interviews (two of which were pilots) I can tell that the story we tell students about English alumni job prospects is skewed at least to some degree. We will not all graduate college to work in coffee shops as the stereotype would have us believe is the hard, fixed truth.

The Inevitable Collapse of Capitalism in the U.S.

Part One of Mills’s book, White Collar explains the complicated economic history of the United States up until 1951. In this section, Mills reveals the way the nation of small entrepreneurs from the beginning of U.S. history became white-collar workers for large corporations. This history is extremely detailed and complicated so in order to explain the whole thing in one concise blog post, I will explain the whole thing through one analogy about dominoes.

Think of the beginning of the United States as an independent nation like a box full of dominoes. In Europe, the dominoes have already been knocked over and messed up. But the United States has a brand new box of dominoes. The people of the new country can do anything they want. The United States, being a new independent country does not need to dig itself out of feudalism or destroy an old economic/government system before it can build a new one.

So each individual person sets up a couple of dominoes. People move West, take their own land and start farms and small businesses. The entire economy – no, more than that, the entire system of life in the United States – is based around fair competition. Each man is expected to make his own way and the more ingenuitive, clever, hard-working man will make more money while the lazy, careless worker will lose his money and be forced to start over. This is just about the fairest system of all time. How well you do in life is based entirely on content of character. As Mills puts it, “It is no wonder that men thought this [economic system] so remarkable they called it a piece of Divine Providence, each man’s hand being guided as if by magic into a preordained and natural harmony” (Mills 9).

The problem is that this isn’t the real system. While cleverness and a great work ethic might help the worker in life, power comes from money. Power is not rooted in how hard you work, it’s based on how much money you have, so when businesses begin to conglomerate and create monopolies, even though they may not have the best product or service and may not be the most ingenuitive, they beat all of the other small businesses because they make more money and will continue to make more money. Farms work the exact same way as businesses so that eventually, only a few corporations (and the government) control almost all of the farmland. To return to my dominoes analogy, monopolies were created when two or more people combined their dominoes and took those of everyone around them. What they built was not better than that of the small businessman, but it was bigger.

The people of the United States intended to make an entirely new system of government, one unlike anything seen in Europe, a goal they accomplished for the most part, not because they invented democracy but because they did not give power to the government, they gave power to an economic system, capitalism.

Big corporations pay white-collar workers a salary to do specialized, specific tasks for them. White-collar workers do not own any property and must therefore rely on corporations and the government in order to survive. Basically, white collar workers are paid to set up the dominoes for big corporations but they do not own any dominoes themselves.

So as the monopolies took all the dominoes and began to overlap their shares so that those in charge of the monopolies gained more and more dominoes, people began to resent the CEO’s running their lives and taking all of their dominoes. The ideology of the small businessman was used to keep the masses in check. Politicians frequently talk about how small businessmen are the foundation of the American economic system and that in order to save the American way of life, we have to help out small businessmen. This simply isn’t true. The American way of life is capitalism and the goal of capitalism, the state towards which capitalism is constantly moving, is the ultimate monopoly, where only a very select few individuals control all of the wealth. There is no flaw within the economic system because it is doing exactly what it is intended to do. The flaw is with the economic system itself.

Back to the domino analogy. Dominoes don’t have a problem falling down. Dominoes are intended to fall down. So when they do begin to fall and the politicians say that in order to stop it from happening, we need to set up more dominoes in front of the falling line, we have to realize that this is simply never going to work.

Planning for the Future: How White-Collar Society Impacts Career Decisions

I got my first “C” in fourth grade and it was devastating. A “C” was practically like an “F” to me, a kid who had never gotten anything lower than a 95% on any assignment, ever. I never got anything lower than an “A” because if I didn’t get an “A” on every assignment then I would have bad grades and if I did that, I wouldn’t be prepared for middle school and then high school. If I didn’t do well in high school then I wouldn’t get into a good college and even now, as a college senior, I am still obsessive over my grades because I am afraid of graduating and not being able to find a job that pays well enough for me to afford health insurance.

Thankfully, back in fourth grade I was given the assignment at the end of the day so I could immediately go home and cry to my mom. If I remember correctly, the conversation had progressed significantly (all the while with my mom telling me not to care so much) when I finally asked why I couldn’t have just been born a dog. Obviously, this is a ridiculous complaint but it sprang from a very realistic fear. I didn’t want to compete in the world like this for my entire life. It felt exhausting and I was only ten years old. The world seemed to me like there was only one very narrow path for survival that I was afraid to step even one toe out of line. I couldn’t get a “C” in fourth grade because that meant I wouldn’t get a job with benefits and I would go bankrupt trying to pay dental bills.

Wright Mills writes about this strict, pre-determined way of life in the introduction to his book, White Collar, when he says society has become “a great salesroom, an enormous file, an incorporated brain, a new universe of management and manipulation” (Mills xv). People are born into a society that is already set up to define the majority of their life decisions. No one (or at least very few people) can choose not to work and still survive with a decent standard of living. We are so interlinked as a society that we cannot operate in the world without insurance, accountants, grocery stores, and constant governmental surveillance. Mills explains this national phenomena of dependence and control with the seizure of property from small business owners and farmers. To paraphrase Mills, when property belongs to the government, and more importantly to the economic authority (capitalism), man’s right to freedom is voided because his life becomes centered around a job contract and a pay period, rather than land he controls himself (Mills 14).

The interesting thing about Mills’s condemnation of the state of society in the United States is how frighteningly accurate it is for a book published in 1951. Sixty-four years later, Mills’s words have never been more true. In his introduction Mills describes white-collar people as “[e]stranged from community and society in a context of distrust and manipulation; alienated from work and, on the personality market, from self; expropriated of individual rationality, and politically apathetic—these are the new little people, the unwilling vanguard of modern society” (Mills xviii). This description is still true for many—if not the majority—of people. It’s hard not to be politically apathetic, for example, when it seems we are living in an oligarchy because the same families keep running for office. There are more white-collar people now than there were in 1951 and Mills’s descriptions continue to be very relevant to our society today.

So, if my ten-year-old self and Mills are correct and the course of life has been pre-determined at least partially for many people in a way that forces them to get a job and make as much money as possible to survive, then why have a consistent percentage of people continued to study the humanities—a field of study not obviously lucrative in that it does not prepare the student for a specific job? By all accounts, people should study for technical jobs that pay well and practically guarantee employment. I should have chosen a field where I am sure to get a job that might even provide benefits. Yet even I, nervous as I was about the future, chose a field where my future was not crystal clear (and still isn’t).

I don’t have an answer to this question. Not yet. Obviously, this research is intended in part to answer that question. I hope in my subsequent posts I can continue to explore this question and hopefully shed a little light on why English is so captivating, even in the white-collar world Mills portrays so accurately.