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.