Wednesday, May 1, 2013

A Higher Education

I got my first real taste of higher education in the in the Chicago Maroon Newspaper office.  It was the first meeting for prospective staff, and I'd been looking forward to it for months.  The beautiful, well-dressed third-year asked if anyone had any pitches—ideas for articles.

I explained my pitch.  “I’d like to do an article on the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan,” I said.  “I know you said that we concentrate on news that involves the students at the University of Chicago, and the reason I think that this falls within those boundaries is that the soldiers who are dying in the war are our age.  I think we ought to be concerned about that.”

The editor looked at me with an expression that has long since ceased to surprise me.  It was the first time I’d seen it at the University, but I’ve seen it a lot since then:

After a moment of blank silence, the editor spoke.  “I…don’t really think that has much to do with the student body at the University,” she said.  She proceeded to tell me that I could maybe write something like that for their blog, if I wanted, but that they had no interest in printing an article like that.

It was the first time I witnessed this attitude at UChicago, but it definitely wasn't the last.


The second part of my lesson came a few weeks ago, when this woman got killed in Afghanistan

Anne Smedinghoff

None of what follows should be interpreted as a slight against Anne Smedinghoff, who ought to be alive and isn’t.  It is a tragedy when someone dies, and especially when someone dies in a senseless war, and I am sickened that someone else has died in this stupid, horrible conflict.

But let's back up for a minute.

Between that moment in the Chicago newspaper office and the moment this charming girl with perfect teeth was tragically killed, 84 soldiers also died.  Between the moment this college-educated diplomat was killed and present day, 13 more soldiers have died.  Did you read about them in the news?

Three soldiers also got killed in the same explosion that killed the photogenic young diplomat: 

Staff Sergeant Christopher M Ward is dead 
Specialist Wilbel A. Robles-Santa is dead

Specialist Delfin M. Santos Jr. is dead 

Do you recognize their faces?  Seen them on the news lately?  Is this an appropriate time to point out that two out of three are non-white?

They, and thousands of other soldiers, are dead and America has never seen their faces.  Only Ms. Smedinghoff's.

Hyde Park, Chicago

This is a picture of the advertisement on the side of the bus stop where I grab the shuttle to the University of Chicago every day.  I have been staring at it for months now.  Tomorrow, I’ll go and stand next to it again.

She is blonde, white, and pretty in a non-threatening way.  I went to the link on the advertisement and read all about her story.  After a sleeping taxi driver crashed into her outside of a nightclub, she thought she would lose her leg.  Luckily for her, a doctor with experience in Iraq had developed techniques that saved it:

On the second day, Dr. Paul Girard took over — the orthopaedic surgeon I now call my “Angel in Disguise.” Dr. Girard treated wounded troops in Iraq, so he was no stranger to “extremity trauma” as I learned my leg injury would be classified. It was Dr. Girard who first determined that my leg was not lost, and who devised the surgical approach to save it. Until then, no one was betting I’d come out of this with two legs.

Does that sound inspirational?  Then read it again.  Read it until you understand that, in this story, over 50,000 wounded soldiers--18,000 in Afghanistan and 31,000 in Iraq--have been mangled and maimed, but the story here is that those horrific injuries advanced medical science to the point that we could save this rich, white, photogenic woman from the same fate.  

Read this article on the Boston Marathon amputees and you will see the same thing.  I didn't see a whole lot of articles on medical advancement in the field of treating amputees until we had a bunch of rich, white amputees, as opposed to the last 12 years' steady stream of mutilated young men.  Did you?


Here is what higher education has taught me:

It turns out that the Maroon editor was correct.  The war in Afghanistan has nothing to do with America's upper class.   The students I sit in class with are the same age as the soldiers who died in my unit and units like mine, but they are not the same.  They are wealthy, and white/asian, and their teeth are perfect.  Just like the diplomat.  Just like the woman on the advertisement.  That special class of people whose death and dismemberment permeate the public conscience even while the other 83 dead and thousands of wounded never made the back pages of anything but the most local of papers.

We are shocked by the death of Anne Smedinghoff because she is one of us.  Two weeks after the explosion that killed her, major news outlets were still covering the funeral and mourning of this girl, because she is one of us.  The woman on the advertisement looks like someone we know.  We have friends who run the Boston Marathon.

SPC Santos?  SPC Wilbel?  SSG Ward?  They have nothing to do with us, and their deaths do not belong in print.  Maybe in a blog somewhere.


I hate thought experiments, but screw it, let’s do one:

Tom is a plumber.  He makes ten dollars an hour, so in a good year, that’s $20,800.

Drew is the owner of a tech company that makes innovative products.  He makes, let’s say, $200,000 a year when the going’s good.  My fiancĂ© is rolling his eyes, telling me I’m lowballing it.  Go with me here, the numbers don’t matter.

Who is worth more?

The question is not about whose labor is worth more.  The market has determined that Tom’s labor is worth ten dollars an hour and that Drew’s labor is worth a lot more than that, and that’s certainly a debate we can have but we’re not having it today.  Forget about the value of the products of their labor.  Which person—which human being—is worth more?

“They’re worth the same”, says the UChicago student, says the media, says the government: shut the fuck up.  You don’t believe that.  You told me that my whole life, and I believed it, but you never did.

Drew is one of us, and therefore we think he’s worth more.  But that sounds horrible, so we can’t say it out loud.  We may make a lot of noise when directly asked about whether Tom is worth just as much as Drew, but listen to our conversation and you’ll see what we really think of plumbers, or construction workers, or waiters. 

Higher education has taught me to see what’s been in front of my face my entire life: there are the things we say and the things we think, and they’re not the same thing.  We say that everyone is equal, but we don’t mean it.  Anne Smedinghoff is more equal than Delfin Santos Jr, and I don't care what you've volunteered for or how many petitions you've signed.


I had been told, all throughout my childhood and certainly after 9/11, that the wars we were fighting were important and vital, that the soldiers going over there were fighting for our freedom, that they were heroes, that we supported them.  I believed them. Yet when I told people that’s what I was going to do after high school—me, a pretty, young, academically overachieving white* girl from a good family—there were several people who refused to believe me.  Now I know why.

In the Army, I met people from all over the country, people from income brackets ranging from almost middle-class to working-class to dirt fucking poor.  I met people who hadn’t grown up with dentists and who know what it was to get the electricity shut off on them, to have no money to pay that bill.  I also met significant numbers of non-white people for the first time in my life, thereby discovering my subtle and heretofore undiagnosed racism.  I still struggle with that racism today.

Of all the people I met, maybe three people in my entire Army experience were rich white kids like me.  I brought a lifetime of unconscious arrogance with me that made me unbearable to my fellow soldiers for years, but eventually I learned how to act, more or less.  I learned how to talk to people without talking down to them.  I learned that no one cares whether I am a good person, or a talented person, or a delicate snowflake.  I learned that in my new world, people expect results.  I learned that there are people with half my GPA who can do twice as much work as I can, and that the world needs a lot of different kinds of talent to function, including a mind-boggling array of talent that I do not possess and can only admire.

I learned a thousand other lessons I still have trouble putting into words, but the upshot is this: as a young, white, photogenic, rich girl who went to a great high school and has a real aptitude for academics, I'd been taught that I was better than other people.  I believed it implicitly.  My first four painful years in the Army taught me that I'm not.

The kids in my classes remind me of who I might have been if I’d gone to UChicago the first time around.  They’ve never learned that lesson, and the university is actively teaching them the opposite one.  We are told daily that we are the elite, the best of the best, going to one of the top schools in the world.  We are told this by professors who have never left the walls of academia, professors who tell us in the next breath that if we work very hard, we may be able to work at Goldman Sachs someday.  Perhaps get a job in Washington.  Really make a difference.

I am surrounded by the movers and shakers of tomorrow and they don’t think that the war in Afghanistan has shit to do with them and they are right

What I am saying is, there is a class of people in this country who gets to make all the political decisions, but doesn’t have to suffer the consequences of those political decisions.  The people who write papers supporting the newest equivalent of neoconservative support for wars to spread democracy, or wars to secure our oil interests in the middle east, or even wars of national defense, will never have to fight in those wars. 

Before the age of democracy, aristocrats ruled over the serfs with an iron fist, but even they marched into battle with their troops.  Maybe they led from behind, and maybe they encased themselves in armor, and certainly they were better-trained, but at least they went.  These future Washington policy goons, these future economic policy experts, do not have to worry about going to war, ever.  All they have to do is move the chess pieces: facsimiles of human beings that we’ve all agreed to pretend are worth as much as we are in public.

If you’re counting on the goodwill of these future leaders to save you, I’d like to remind you that many of them have never experienced anything like actual adversity.  Many of them will smoothly transition from the sheltered world of college to the world of Washington or Wall Street.  Many of them have never actually had a conversation with a person outside of their income bracket.  I used to be them, remember?  You thought the sad rich people demographic that appeared in the Wall St. Journal a few months ago was an accident?  They’ve never seen anything different.

I don’t have a solution, not yet.  Higher education has only taught me the problem, and reminded me of my position in this world.

All I know is that if this is the way the system works, I want no part of it.

1 comment:

  1. You raise a very good point, but there is a flaw - so to speak - that you yourself are aware of. You do not have a solution, not even a hypothetical one. Which in no way invalidates the point.
    The reason why the government exists is, very simply, to keep the majority satisfied. It's actually one of the best things about democracy: politicians want power and/or public good, and either way they have to make decisions that will be most favorable for the people so they can get (re)elected. Again, we're working with an over-simplified model here. Do the horrors of war make people happy? No. But we are an enlightened nation where being politically active is trendy, so we have to have some degree of "awareness." The media (whose job is more or less the same as the politicians' - keeping the majority satisfied) gives us this awareness in a degree that will not hurt our fragile and inexperienced psyche. Hence, perfect teeth get a story, minority soldiers do not. We can superficially relate to perfect teeth. As far as soldiers go - at the surface of our minds we know that soldiers go to war and win, or sometimes die, and that's really all we need to know. Your experiences demonstrate what happens when someone who wants the unappealing truth with less-than-perfect teeth be known to public - that person has no place in the good-for-public business. It's not glamorous, it can't be sold, and it won't win you the majority of votes or views.
    The fight that you have before you is admirable, but the change you are going for is circular: the change needs to be in what the public perceives the good for it to be. Your ideal situation is, then, a benevolent dictatorship that forces the truth of the less-than-perfect teeth in American throats to educate them about the world around them, making them wiser, teaching them to not be so self-conceited, and ultimately taking away their oblivious happiness. Think about your own experiences. Are you happier, having been in the Army and knowing all that you know, than your peers at Chicago University? Is the quality of your life better?
    This you will most likely disagree with the most, but it seems that the change of status quo of the system is unnecessary given the population we have today. Society breaks itself apart into economic classes, cultures, nationalities, etc. A while ago, I was vehemently against the ideas of merging with one's own cultures, I couldn't understand why there are black neighborhoods, Chinatowns, poor quarters, rich quarters, and so forth. I couldn't understand why aren't there laws (or better government-sponsored programs) for immigrants to learn the language of the country they live in. The reality is that the melting pot consists of inhomogenous ingredients; people stick to their own and truly feel like they have no need to learn about people they cannot at all relate to. Again, aside from "how are you going to accomplish the desegregation", what is the point? Who is going to practically benefit from this?
    Practical benefits of 'knowing' come only when the world is filled with people who can be active agents in bringing about a change. Revolutionaries. Not the kind that buy a Che t-shirt and sell brownies, but the kind that is like you, the kind that doesn't break under the weight of all the knowledge but acts upon it to try to make the world a better place. The rest of the people simply don't need this.
    Ironically, if the entire world was full of the latter kind of people, then we would be a very happy, peaceful, and decadent society. Like a bunch of Hedonismbots from Futurama. I'm not sure if I'd necessarily not want to live in such a place.