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.