Last year, and for the first time, a majority of my classes were comprised of Seniors. It was exciting for me to work with these young men and women as they stood on the threshold of adulthood. High school graduation is one of the very last rites of passage in American culture. In Appalachia, perhaps more than any place else I’ve been, the high school graduation marks a clear line between childhood and adulthood. The tassel moves to the other side of the hat and the child is wiped away, replaced by an adult. New expectations, new stresses, and new responsibilities are quickly heaped on the new graduate.
It’s a time of great joy for those students with supportive family structures, but for those without, graduation season is a time of existential crisis and resentment.
This is most readily seen in male students from lower income families. I had a student this year, let’s call him Isaac, who worked at a fast food job full time in the evenings after school. As a result, Isaac was sleep deprived. He smoked weed in the parking lot before school each morning and slept through many of his classes. He never turned in his homework, and his classwork was always completed halfheartedly. When I made any effort to right his course or help him plan for the future, he smugly waved me off and said “I’m not gonna use any of this in the military.”
Isaac wanted to join the army and serve as a military policeman. “Oh, that’s a great plan for the future,” I told him. “What were your ASVAB scores?”
“What’s the ASVAB?” He asked.
“It’s the test you took earlier this year. You have to pass it to get into the service.”
“Oh.” He said, averting his eyes. “I skipped that day.”
I shook my head. “Have you looked at the calendar to see when the retakes are?”
“Ok. Well, since you didn’t do it on the day it was offered, you’ll have to come in on one of the other days. You should go see the counselor after class.”
He said that he would, but when I called the counseling office later in the day, Isaac had never appeared. I called the front office to see if Isaac was still on campus, and the secretary told me that his name was on the sign out sheet. He’d gotten called in to work and his parents checked him out of school.
I worked on Isaac a little every day, trying to get him to think about his future. But Isaac had no interest. He expended Herculean amounts of effort buying, selling, and trading cars. It seemed like each week he had a new junky clunker that he was going to trade for a slightly better car. He spent countless hours chasing leads on various internet marketplaces, and he drove hours to meet different sellers to test drive sports cars. But Isaac couldn’t be bothered to come to school on a Saturday to take a standardized test that would secure a path to a career. Isaac had no sense of the long game. No ability to sacrifice pleasure in the short term for a future reward. He seemed incapable of doing anything that he didn’t want to do.
And this is where parents and public institutions are failing children. For too long the narrative has been follow your passions; do what makes you happy, and you’re perfect just the way you are. This is horribly misguided, especially for young boys. Men are conquerors. We interact with our world through dominance hierarchies, through overcoming adversaries and adversity. And the largest adversaries of every man are his passions and his impulses toward empty happiness.
The self is a thing to overcome. And pleasure must be delayed in the short term if anything is to be gained in the long term. One of the defining traits of humanity is the ability to bargain with the future. Every sacrifice is a negotiation. When I make a sacrifice, I make the implicit statement that I understand my present suffering is less important or severe than my future suffering is likely to be.
Eating a hamburger today leads to heart disease tomorrow. Skipping a workout means a loss of overall progress. Taking a day off from writing means skipping the next day will be easier. I would rather eat fast food, play video games, and take a nap than eat a salad and read a book. Everyone would.
Isaac couldn’t be bothered or convinced to make the distinction between what feels good in the present and what is expedient in the future. He couldn’t be made to understand until it was too late that he was setting himself up for a future of emptiness and misery.
The social movement toward following one’s passions has been disastrous for young men who are prone toward impulsive behavior. The narrative of all the great wisdom traditions of the world cautions people specifically against following their spirits to and fro from one activity to the next without taking the time to become a true master at any one thing. Those ancient religions encouraged austerity. They encouraged the sacrificial ritual. Slaughtering the sacrificial lamb today meant the promise of God’s favor in the future. And temporary failures and shortcomings were accounted for. A new sacrifice set the parishioner back on course and put him back on the path to the ideal.
This ethos is what lacks in a passion based society because people have conflated passion with whimsy. “Do what makes you happy and you’ll never work a day in your life,” we tell our young people with an inspirational but somewhat condescending smile. I love to teach, and I love to write, but both are incredible undertakings. Most of teaching is clerical work, planning, and grading. The parts of teaching I love are the small, quiet, interpersonal moments where I get to touch the life of another person through love, inspiration, and understanding. Those moments constitute about five percent of my job. The rest is work. And if I only wrote when I felt like it this very sentence would go unwritten.
Every passion project reaches the point where it becomes a slog. And I’ve started many more projects than I’ve finished. The human condition is suffering in the name of something greater. Every small endeavor includes this simple fact. And in life, the choice is either suffer the discomfort of hard work in the present, or suffer the pain of failure later.
The hopeless high school senior who refuses to take the sound advice of his elders, is confronted with this fact of life near graduation. Isaac worked his job, and spoke about moving to Florida and opening a garage near the beach. He didn’t view his lack of experience in entrepreneurship or mechanics a boundary to his dream, despite my best efforts to explain to him that no one graduates high school and simply becomes an auto mechanic. All jobs worth having require advanced training, either in the form of experience or education. Jobs not requiring post-secondary training don’t pay anything simply because their workforce requires no capital investment. Doctors are paid more than cashiers because becoming a doctor requires hundreds of thousands of dollars in investment and countless hours of sacrifice. Entire human institutions involving the government, academia, non-profits, and private enterprise must come together to make a single physician. Making a cashier requires an old desktop computer, an internet connection, a power point presentation, and a couple hours training from another minimum wage employee.
Isaac wasted his entire year coming to school late, ignoring the advice of his teachers and counselors, and refusing to take any steps to help himself. His attitude changed once he had to confront the fact that his choices had boxed him out of his future. He took the ASVAB test for entrance into the military and failed it. He was ineligible for admission to any job training program because he couldn’t get a recommendation from a single high school teacher. His grades prohibited him from entering a community college.
The rejection Isaac experienced was a potent motivator. He started taking his studies more seriously in the second half of his senior year. He stayed awake in class and turned his assignments in on time, but it was too late. The damage to Isaac’s future and to his reputation had already been done. Isaac wasn’t qualified to do anything after his graduation aside from continuing his work in the service industry, and he finally understood it.
He became angry and resentful. His current lot in life was everyone’s fault but his own. His counselors didn’t tell him he needed to study for the ASVAB. His teachers didn’t teach him enough about how to manage his life. His parents hadn’t supported him enough. But never once did I hear him say, “I shouldn’t of smoked weed before school and slept through all of my classes.” As far as I know, Isaac is still flipping burgers without realizing that his problem now is the same as it was when he was still a student. Isaac could buy a study book for whichever admissions test he needs to pass. He could beg one of his former teachers to tutor him (they would if he asked). He could go to JobCorps and learn a trade. But he won’t. Those things would require him to venture into something unknown.
I think the answer is a push toward more personal responsibility. And I think our students need to be made to understand that the purpose of life is not to be happy or to have fun. Tying the purpose of life to happiness and fun is dangerous thinking. All human life encounters deep and sometimes prolonged suffering. And that suffering can take the form of physical pain or illness, but it just as often takes the form of failure, disappointment, or distance from loved ones.
We should instead encourage students to draw their happiness from greater understanding of themselves. We should encourage young men, especially those from high risk (high poverty) environments not to search for happiness through increasing their possessions, but instead to find happiness in self betterment. Increased wealth will be a natural byproduct of a life held firmly together.
The internet is ubiquitous. Screens are everywhere, and electronic versions of the most ground breaking books in the world are available for anyone who reaches out to grab them. An education fit to rival any degree can be gotten for free online. It may not be fun to read a Carl Jung or Socrates. It may not cause joy to read a Finance textbook, but people who do such things tend to be far more successful in life than those who do not, regardless of formal education.
I’ve never heard a Wal-Mart cashier recite Shakespeare or Milton, and I don’t suspect that’s a thing that’s likely to happen. But is that because people who find themselves career cashiers cannot understand Milton or is it because they would never think to Google for a top 100 list of influential books? I suspect it’s just intellectual laziness. And I know there will be sympathetic arguments about how a person who cannot satisfy their basic needs cannot learn, and that is true to a degree. But anyone who can afford a cellphone and a plan to go with it could give themselves a good education for no added cost.
Self improvement and book reading won’t turn a wage-slave into a neurosurgeon by itself, but ideas are dangerous in the hands of people. The books serve to provide a framework for thinking. They pull back the fog of ignorance from around the head of the ignorant. Before long the new thinker notices things they never noticed before. They may notice that the people working around them at their low wage service jobs seem to be unhealthier than many of the customers coming into the store. They may notice that their corporate masters seem to lack empathy. They may resist the training videos that say unions are bad and an increase in the minimum wage would lead to hours being cut.
They may take a second and deeper look at themselves when they see themselves falling into old family habits. They may encounter a financial scam and know better. They may avoid voting against their own best interests. These are the intangible benefits of an education. Students are right to complain that they “will never use this shit” in their lives. But the purpose of education is not to learn a minor concept for its own sake. The point is to learn how to learn on one’s own. A person who can read well can learn anything on their own given enough time and access to the written word.
This is how the world is opened. This is how cycles and chains are broken. The key is discipline and desire. These are the things we should be teaching students. We should be teaching them how to learn without institutions. We should enable them to set goals and force them to stick to them. We should force them to feel the pain of failure in a safe place instead of pushing them into a world they aren’t ready for. We should tell them that they aren’t good enough the way they are. If everyone were good enough, we wouldn’t need institutions to better us.
This article is reproduced with the permission of its author, Robert Dugan.