December 24, 2013
On the eve of the day when Christians supposedly celebrate our innate generosity, my attention was drawn to the story of a young woman who, you might say, is a kindred spirit. This article was part of Occupy Wall Street’s “We Are The 99%” campaign, written back in April:
I am a female mechanical engineering student. Dean’s List student, even for Calc 3 and Dynamics. I have no co-signer for loans, so I am only eligible for enough to cover books and tuition. It’s taken me 5 years to complete 6 semesters because I run up my credit cards to pay for gas and food, and I can’t go back until I pay the balance down. My cards are currently completely maxed, and I fear that I am beginning to lose Calculus knowledge that I learned in 2005. My car is ready to break down at 130,000 miles, and my debt payments are $700 just for interest every month. I have been paying on and off between semesters and I still have $5000 to go before I even begin to pay the principal balance. I’m 25, live at home, and I bartend 50 hours a week. I want to design machines and energy systems that have a positive impact on our society, but I’m getting you HAMMERED and cleaning up after your party instead. I especially enjoy when people talk to me like an idiot because you got the wrong cheese on your burger. I know – I’m serving you dinner because I must be a stupid girl.
A Communique From The 99%
Let’s contrast this with my own experience. Back when I was an engineering student in the late 1970s, tuition was affordable at state schools. I made enough during most summers to cover it, plus part of my other expenses. There were also Pell Grants, or their equivalents (which, if memory serves, were called something else back then), and that plus some scholarships mostly paid for my education. I wasn’t stuck with a crushing debt, nor did I have to take a few courses at a time in order to be able to pay for them. Nor are state universities affordable any longer. The University of Washington and Washington State University cost more in a year than my entire bachelor’s degree. By the time I was this young woman’s age, I’d been working as an engineer for two years. You might say that by that time I was no longer an apprentice engineer, having learned how the process worked in a large engineering firm.
That last sentence should give you an idea of what’s wrong with our current system – “You might say that by that time I was no longer an apprentice engineer, having learned how the process worked in a large engineering firm”. The young woman in the photo, whose brain would seem to be every bit as capable as mine was, is still years away from working as an engineer. That is part of the opportunity cost we pay in the name of “fiscal responsibility“. By just about any measure that matters, we are as capable of giving this young woman an affordable education now as we were capable of giving me one back in the day. Yet we waste years of this young woman’s potential, and the potential of tens of thousands like her, perhaps hundreds of thousands, with economic policies that would have made Scrooge proud.
Based on my experience, her speculation about losing her ability to understand calculus and higher mathematics may be true, as well. Soon after I was taught those things, I was able to see them applied practically in various science and engineering courses. The knowledge stuck with me much longer as a result. While a lot of that knowledge is gone today from lack of use, I remember far more of it than I do the German I learned in high school, which I never used much at all.
Our society’s pathological lack of generosity is wasting the most precious resource we have – the minds of people like this young woman. They are the ones who will cure diseases, set policies, and design the machines we need in the future. They are the ones who will explore space, and find the knowledge necessary to do those other things. Wasting so many minds is worse than a sin – it’s dangerous. As I’ve explained before, our existence on this world is precarious at best. If we continue to ignore the latent talents of our people to deal with what the universe throws at us, we won’t be around much longer.
Merry Frickin’ Christmas.