Management / The American View: Schoolhouse of Cards

The American View: Schoolhouse of Cards

When giving advice to new graduates, never suggest that they ‘follow their passion.' Business Reporter's resident U.S. 'blogger argues that deeply-rooted problems in American culture make this advice not only counterproductive, but downright hazardous for anyone who isn’t already obscenely wealthy.

The mid-term elections take place today in the USA; depending on which talking head you listen to, it’s either going to be the ‘resurgence of the rational voter’ or the ‘triumph of spite over reason.’ I’m not going to weigh in on politics because everyone is exhausted by America’s predicament. Moreover, no matter how the mid-terms play out today, our society’s fundamental arguments and ideological clashes aren’t like to resolve anytime soon. So … yeah. Ugh. Everyone needs a break from it.

That in mind, I want to step back to the end of spring and revisit an argument that I drafted (but never published) on the traditional bloody awful advice that I heard adults ‘sharing’ with new graduates. I’m not saying that irrational expectations for how our society works and our propensity to pit armies of amoral power-mad sociopaths into positions of power got us into this mess, but … AAAAAGH! Sorry. Back on target:

In the USA, June is high school and university graduation season. It’s when vibrant, fresh-faced, and naïve new adults strike out on grand adventures … according to schmaltzy TV movies and greeting card companies. In reality, the US job market for young adults is still a slow-motion train wreck. No matter how good ‘the numbers’ seem [1] the practical reality for new graduates is grim. Student debt is a crisis and entry-level jobs for new graduates that can pay down that debt largely don’t exist. Young folks graduating into this mess not only have to deal with a deeply polarized culture, they also have to face the threat of homelessness, bankruptcy, and ruin.

That’s why I’m sick to death of hearing adults urge new graduates to ‘follow [their] passion!’ I argue that this probably the worst advice that an American adult can bestow, since it’s an accelerated path to brutal financial exploitation and personal exhaustion.

People who insist that one must ‘suffer for what you love’ are lying to you. Either because they enjoy seeing you suffer, or because they’re making money off of your suffering, or both. 

Consider this passage from Professor David Graeber’s brilliant new book Bullshit Jobs: ‘… in our society, there seems to be a general rule that, the more obvious one’s work benefits other people, the less one is likely to be paid for it. … Even more pervasive, there seems to be a broad sense this is the way things should be. [2]

‘It’s even clearer in the United States, where Republicans have had remarkable success mobilizing resentment against schoolteacher and autoworkers (and not, significantly, against the school administrators or auto industry executives who actually cause the problems) for their supposedly bloated wages and benefits. It’s as if they are being told “But you get to teach children! Or make cars! You get to have real jobs! And on top of that, you have the nerve to also except middle-class pensions and health care?”’

I’ve heard all my life how ‘being a teacher’ is the most spiritually enriching and socially-important career that any person could pursue. Both my parents were teachers. My uncles were teachers. Their friends were all teachers. My sister is a teacher. A girl that I dated in university was studying to become a teacher. After graduating uni I married a teacher. All of these folks were earnestly convinced –because someone had convinced them of it – that teaching America’s youth was the noblest of paid endeavours. They believed that teaching is a civic responsibility. These all believed this … and they all got shamelessly exploited for that belief.

Consider the piece that Vice News Tonight aired about the Oklahoma teachers’ strike back on 6th June: The article (which gives away the story in the title) is called ‘We talked to 18 teachers in Oklahoma who are calling it quits.’ The eight-minute video (which is also available on YouTube) is unsettling to watch if you’ve ever known anyone in the profession. Or you could get the core idea from the opening summary paragraph:

‘Eric Weingartner worked two side jobs in addition to his job as a full-time 4th grade teacher to make ends meet. Chemistry teacher Becky Smith’s monthly paycheck rose just $300 in 16 years. Aimee Elmquist spent her own money to stock her biology classroom. Mary West did the same for her high school art class.’

‘WOO-HOO! We’re spending the last of our cash on school supplies for other people’s children instead of saving anything for our own retirement. What fun!'

The environment that Vice News profiled is the environment that I grew up in: teachers working two and three jobs each in order to keep food on the table, all the while spending what little money they might have left over on required classroom supplies that their districts wouldn’t fund. It was callous financial exploitation at its finest.

Further, the teachers I knew were required to ‘donate’ unpaid labour to setting up, tearing down, and moving their classrooms every year. They were required to study new topics on unpaid time in order to keep up with the curriculum. They were required to invest hundreds of uncompensated hours each year grading tests, marking up homework, researching new programme topics, and recording grades all because there wasn’t paid time allotted or additional staff to perform those mandatory tasks.

Making things worse, most of the teachers I knew couldn’t complain about their plight to people outside of their profession. In American culture, teaching is viewed as a charitable endeavour, not a ‘real job.’ Mentioning the long hours, poor benefits, or financial burdens was often met with condescending scorn by friends: ‘Oh, you only work six hours a day and you get all summer to lounge around. You’re not a real worker; you’re just a dilettante!’ It’s a pervasive American myth, but people still buy into it despite the decades of blatant public evidence refuting it.

Even worse: when you factor out the omnipresent threat of mass shootings, US schools are still rife with violence. I knew a teacher who quit entirely after one of her problem children brought weapons to school and the principal refused to either punish the child or to remove him from the classroom. That was decades ago; today, school shootings with fewer than a dozen victims don’t even warrant a mention on the evening news.

THERE ARE HUNDREDS OF STOCK PHOTOS OF SCHOOL SHOOTINGS. THIS IS NOT OKAY. WHAT IN BLAZES IS WRONG WITH US?

It’s wrenching to accept that the teachers enduring this intolerable situation are all ‘following their passion.’ Or that they’re ‘sacrificing for a noble cause.’ I put those phrases in quotes because, to be honest, they’re euphemisms for ‘getting exploited by a cynical and uncaring system.’ Teachers’ ‘passion’ is a vulnerability that’s cruelly ill-used to prop up an unsustainable and decaying business model. One that treats schools like factories, teachers like machines, and children like packaged consumer goods.

Cruelly? Consider that the median pay for a school superintendent in the USA in 2018 is $114,890. That’s two-and-a-half times more than a starting teacher makes and is still double what a twenty-five-year veteran teacher makes in most districts. It’s also only $3,000/year less than the average corporate lawyer makes. And yet, administrators and corporate lawyers don’t have to grade papers, mop up vomit, break up fights, or shield their charges from other students’ (or clients’) gunfire. There’s no correlation in the USA between the value to society of work performed and a worker’s compensation.

Then there’s the problem of the ever-shrinking American middle class. USA Today’s Paul Davidson published an article on 30th October called [a] ‘Whopping 62 percent of jobs don’t support middle-class life after accounting for cost of living.’ [3] One telling quote goes: ‘A slight majority of Americans, 52 percent, do live in middle-class households, according to recent annual reports by Pew Research Center. And another 20 percent or so live in upper income households. But that’s because they’re juggling multiple jobs, for example, or relying on investments, an inheritance or other household members who may have higher-paying jobs.’

That’s how my parents managed to scrape by on teachers’ salaries: by tutoring on nights and weekends and working additional blue-collar jobs over the summer. Most of the teachers that I’ve known relied on a working spouse’s income such that their teaching wages augmented the primary bread winner’s income. The idea that a young graduate can achieve stable, sustainable economic success at below-market wages by ‘relying on investments [or] an inheritance’ is ludicrous. That’s the kind of blame-the-victim mentality that only the out-of-touch wealthy could conceive of. People for whom work isn’t necessary for survival; strictly something one does to ‘follow one’s passion.’

'If those annoying proles want a “living wage,” why don’t they start their own company with a £100m grant from their parents like I did?'

You might think that our ‘free market’ worship would correct this. Worker shortages are supposed to drive up wages until the compensation and working conditions are fairly balanced against a job’s risks and stressors. Except it’s not what we do. Instead, we bamboozle our naïve young graduates with feel-good folk-sayings about following dreams and, thereby, con them into sacrificing their economic value, health, sanity … and (sometimes) lives to perform a stressful task at significantly below market value for someone else’s long-term benefit. I’d love to say that this is ‘un-American,’ but that’s a lie. It’s about as American as you can get.

Little wonder, then, that so many teachers quit after a few years and never go back. That’s fine for the system, though; constant turnover means constant entry-level positions open for new applicants. There’s always a crop of wide-eyed idealists to exploit entering the job market every June.

I’m not advising people not to teach; it is a noble profession. For the sake of our nation’s future, we need good teachers to grow educated, responsible, informed voters. Instead, I’m advising new graduates to research what they’re getting into so that they can make a rational decision about the sacrifices they’ll have to make in order to ‘pursue their passion.’ It’s no different than joining the Army in that respect: the medals and parades are great and all, but you will go to Afghanistan and you will leave service with life-long injuries that limit your future career options. It’s part of the total package, and it’s not negotiable. If a young graduate faces the facts and is still okay with giving up their time, pay, benefits, and health for a noble cause, then God bless ‘em and good luck. I’ll enthusiastically support their decision … for as long as they can stand the strain.

That’s the main problem that I have with disingenuous advice: passions are noble pursuits when you’re rich and carefree. If you’re young, broke, riddled with debt, and uncompetitive, then ‘passions’ are often (if not always) a luxury that you can’t afford to pursue. Not in this economic environment, anyway, and not in this society. Maybe it’s different in the UK or the EU. Here in the USA … no. It’s slow martyrdom punctuated with pep rallies and the occasional completely-preventable mass-shooting.

Maybe things will get better after the mid-term elections. Maybe we’ll figure out how to provide universal access to affordable healthcare. Maybe we’ll end forty years of wage stagnation. Maybe we’ll solve the gun violence problem in our schools. Maybe we’ll return to teaching fact-based critical thinking. Given who we are and how we got here as a society … I seriously doubt it.


[1] 4.0% in June 2018, compared to 3.7% in October 2018.

[2] Emphasis added.

[3] The entire point of the article is right there in the tile. I admire that.

Title Allusions: Beau Willmon, House of Cards (US version; 2013-2018 TV Series)


POC is Keil Hubert, keil.hubert@gmail.com

Follow him on Twitter at @keilhubert.

You can buy his books on IT leadershipIT interviewinghorrible bosses and understanding workplace culture at the Amazon Kindle Store.

Keil Hubert is the head of Security Training and Awareness for OCC, the world’s largest equity derivatives clearing organization, headquartered in Chicago, Illinois. Prior to joining OCC, Keil has been a U.S. Army medical IT officer, a U.S.A.F. Cyberspace Operations officer, a small businessman, an author, and several different variations of commercial sector IT consultant.

Keil deconstructed a cybersecurity breach in his presentation at TEISS 2014, and has served as Business Reporter’s resident U.S. ‘bloggersince 2012. His books on applied leadership, business culture, and talent management are available on Amazon.com. Keil is based out of Dallas, Texas.