When money, not meaning, leads in education, we’ve lost our way

I bought the myth.

Meritocracy, upward mobility, the American Dream, whatever you call it, I bought it in bulk. I was just a kid. How could I have known better?

I bought the myth and devoted myself to academics, taking as many honors and AP classes as my schools would pile on. I felt pretty good earning straight As.

By the time I got to college, I was beginning to question and have profound doubts about the justice of our economy. Still, I believed no matter how unjust society at large might be, academia was somehow separate. I believed in the ivory tower. I believed the institution of education remained far from the hollow, ravenous, covetous world of profit. I believed the ornate concrete architecture at universities corresponded to a formidable ethic founded in the love of truth, wisdom, and justice. I believed universities were a sacred refuge where scholarship, integrity, and intelligence — not money — was the currency.

I continued to submit to my studies and earned wide acclaim from my professors, who I generally regarded as mentors and paragons of virtue. I guarded my 4.0 GPA like a child. I graduated 1st in my undergraduate class with honors, with distinction, with an Outstanding Undergraduate Award, with a Mensa scholarship, with university scholarships, with community service awards.

As a student, I was more decorated than a five-star general at a costume party.

I thought surely this meant something. “Now that I’ve demonstrated my ability to think, create, and communicate at an elite level,” I thought, “I’ll be recruited worldwide. I’ll be able to start a bidding war among grad schools. Here I am, academia. Come get me!”

Crickets.

It turns out, academic achievements in our society are worthless junk. Worth less than a grilled cheese sandwich with a slight resemblance to the Virgin Mary. Worth less than a kidney stone from William Shatner. Worth less than macadamia nuts. Rather than being promoted for my achievements, I’ve been isolated. Not only have I struggled for years to find a decent job and earn a living, I’ve been shut out of academia because I cannot afford it.

In spite of my achievements, I’ve been shut out.

In spite of my passion, commitment, and confidence that academia is one of the few places where I belong, I’ve been shut out.

While other, wealthier students write myopic theses on such redundant, remedial, dead-end topics as “Art through the Ages”, “Quality Organizational Leadership”, and “Ceramic Masks”, I, who have a mature intellectual sensibility and an urgent vision for a grand, substantial project, have been shut out.

I’ve done research. I’ve tried clawing my way in with calls, appointments, letters to professors and deans worldwide. I’ve applied to teach because, after years of struggling to afford an education, I have the equivalent of multiple master’s degrees through independent study.

No one cares.

Academia, like every other social institution, has been swallowed by the neoliberal economy. It has been sheared of virtue, truth, and justice, and reduced to the question of profit. In all my attempts to enter graduate school, not once have I been asked about my intellectual pursuits. The chief question on everyone’s mind is not how I will contribute to the scholarly health of human civilization, but how I will contribute to the material wealth of the university.

Last week, after yet another professor ignored my inquiries about attending graduate school in spite of financial hardship, I finally admitted that I have no hope of continuing my formal education.

For now, the profiteers have won. The academic potential of another brilliant human mind has been quashed, potential that in its social value could yield far more returns than the mere sum that I, as an individual, cannot afford to pay to attend.

This is the tragedy of a profit-driven economy. It favors localized, short-term gains over long-term social good.

I may have given up my pursuit of an advanced degree, but I will keep learning and writing. As depth psychologist Carl Jung noted, what is repressed does not go away. It merely becomes distorted and finds expression in unconventional ways.

The machine that made me believe the myth has not broken me. I have not lost sight of my intellectual vision and all the hard work I did to develop my mind. I will continue to pursue my work independently. I will join the league of others who have been beaten down by a society that’s failed us with ignorance, greed, and broken promises.

The mind which was trained to be a tool for society will now be a tool for reforming it so that one day we can all benefit from access to education.