“I just wanna get into a job with heaps of money, dude”
Sitting in a high school valedictory ceremony is quite nostalgic for a 20 year old. For an entire hour I watched kids climb up onto a stage and pose for a photo with the school principal while holding an expensive-looking piece of paper. I remember being up on that stage to accept my certificate 3 years ago and I remember feeling like I had accomplished almost nothing in my life up until that point. However, that was not the issue. At the end of high school, I had in fact felt as if I was not even ready or worthy to accomplish anything.
From a young age I had been taught by my middle-class parents, who had migrated to Australia with me (nine years of age at the time) from a poverty-stricken country, that success in life means doing something to make this world better and education provides the tools to do so. However, as I set out to receive my education, mostly from renowned institutions, I would often find myself confused as to how what I was learning inside the walls of classrooms and textbooks would enable me to help people ASAP. At the time, apart from the obvious choice of becoming a doctor, who performs surgeries for free, I found my options to be quite limited in terms of how I could contribute; but even then, how can a doctor do anything for free unless they already have enough money for themselves and that would take years of work before they can even pay off the hefty university loans. So where was my education really taking me? I was being taught a lot of things — calculus to enable me to calculate the rate at which taps would need to release water before containers would over-flow; identifying vestigial physiological structures so I can presume how my long gone ancestors may have appeared; organic chemical nomenclature so I could figure out the name of compounds by identifying their bonds and atoms. It was boundless knowledge.
Completing high school, as a slightly above mediocre performer, left me with many questions and even more worries. How can I again recall all that knowledge to finally do something for the world? Okay, so I probably need a job before I can do that, which means I need to go to university. But what is the university degree I can do? And what sort of jobs can I do?
I was a mess. I realised high school graduates simply cannot bring massive change to the world like I imagined. By the time it occurred to me that going to university does not mean I can start doing the big things I was promised by education, I felt like I had been scammed. I questioned the purpose of all the struggle and financial cost of obtaining an education.
The same thoughts would be going through the minds of these young people I saw before me during the valedictory. But for this batch of students, the confusion was much worse than I thought. This became apparent when I heard a common response from the students who I approached to ask of their future plans.
“Man, I don’t really know. Might study commerce. I just wanna get into a job with heaps of money, dude. Don’t really wanna work too much.”
This was nothing short of a slap on the face of what secondary education would represent in an ideal world. But as our world approaches the brink of disasters from all fronts, whether it be climate change, pollution by plastic infestation or depletion of natural resources, the statement I heard is a modern reality. These kids have grown up in mostly privileged homes and neighbourhoods; for most of them, education and media had infected them with the disease of self-interest. When they figured out the deep, dark secret of capitalistic education, they realised that if they endured the early pain they can still use the qualifications for their own pleasures.
In this day and age, it is of utmost importance that we do not make it the purpose of our lives to live comfortably, one filled with luxuries and lots of money, achieved with minimum effort. This mindset is one that reeks of selfish desires and gluttony as more and more young people are being shaped into industrial cogs to fit the machine of consumerism. Their education only prepares them for jobs where they can churn out capital for their employers. The young people I met that day only seemed to aspire for that end goal, a job that would earn them enough money to buy happiness and success.
In our overly-commodified society, the equation of life states that money + comfort = ultimate achievement. Even education itself is commonly being perceived as an investment that would later reap great financial rewards; and an arduous job is another investment that leads to comfortable retirement. It is a system that is prevalent especially in the economically developed nations. But where does humanitarian work fit that system? How can anyone be expecting to change and help the lives of others when they are so busy chasing their own material joy? That is the great dilemma of our generation; we find ourselves in a world stricken with inequality but those fortunate enough for an education is instead taught to serve themselves and their privileged corporations by becoming employees and consumers.
Education has become a conveyor belt that delivers self-interested workers as cogs for the machine we call economy, in other words, our doomsday clock. It is no news that our world is experiencing irreversible destruction and ethics violations in the name of economic progress; and the ill-effects are always felt in greater magnitudes by the subjected under-privileged societies instead of the rich corporates in charge.
For the children who did not respond with that shallow statement, they had outsmarted education and figured all of this out. They told me that they wish to work towards creating change in the world by targeting a job at a not-for-profit or documentaries and books had taught them the right lifestyle changes or they began a small charity with a group of friends. These inspiring children were the stand-outs and outliers; and most often they were also the best performing students. However, most achievements they were truly proud of or most impactful knowledge they had learned had exceeded the bounds of school; they had realised formal education is not enough and went the extra mile to make a real difference. They are the thinkers. They will change the world.