published Wednesday, September 19th, 2012

Cook: Your soul or your wallet?

My son has been studying the Titanic. Especially the sinking. He learned how many died (about 1,500), the age of the youngest survivor (2 months) and the number of eggs brought on board (40,000).

But most haunting to him is the ship's division of classes: richest passengers on top levels and the poorest below.

"Dad,'' he said one morning on the way to elementary school. "What level would we have been on?"

The middle, my boy. Right smack in the middle.

Perhaps no term today is more debated and discussed and defended than the words "middle class.'' One of the finest creations of the 20th century, the middle class has become part of the mythic American Dream: a home, a good job, food in the fridge and every summer or so, a vacation (maybe on a boat).

And a college degree.

A study released today shakes the foundation of the middle class notion of college in Tennessee. The research organization College Measures reports that someone with a two-year associate degree in Tennessee earns more in first-year salaries than a four-year-degree holder.

On average, about $1,000 more.

This is like getting to Florida by driving north. Part of the middle class narrative is that a four-year degree is an investment, not a gamble. Being in the middle class means you don't sink: You stay afloat, or climb even higher.

At least, that's what it used to mean.

This study seems like even more evidence the entire script is being rewritten as we enter the 21st century. The middle class trifecta -- college degree, home ownership, good job -- is more unstable than ever.

On average, a two-year degree from Chattanooga State will earn you more first-year money ($38,823) than a degree from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga ($35,650).

A degree in health-related professions trumps nearly every other -- bachelor's or associate -- degree in first-year earning power (the data only comes from graduates who get jobs in Tennessee).

At the bottom, in an enlightened mess, are the humanities: religious studies, history, English literature, psychology and philosophy, which earn graduates about $25,000 a year.

I think, therefore I am ... poor?

We must ask the larger question that the 21st-century middle class is being forced to answer: Why go to a four-year college at all?

Is it for your wallet? To earn a good-paying job? Or is it for your soul? To earn a life?

Why does it have to be one or the other?

We go to school to learn two things. A trade or craft. And how to live a good life.

Without the first, we float in the clouds, Peter Pans who never grow up, never knowing the dignity of labor. Without the second, we march toward automated classrooms, where students are more like robots, learning vocation solely to serve the machine.

We ought to applaud those students who enter that dangerous and troubling country, where the path goes inward and around the big mountains: God, life, death, the meaning of it all.

And what? They don't earn enough to afford cable televisions in each room? Or riding lawn mowers in the garage?

Work can and should complement one's happiness. We should go to school to learn a trade that makes us happy as we work. When we lose this, we sink, becoming, as Thoreau put it, masses who lead "lives of quiet desperation.''

If my son goes to college and majors in religious studies -- a construction trades associate degree will earn him nearly three times as much -- what should my response be? (Insert joke here about Jesus being a carpenter).

It matters more to me that my son is studying what makes him happy. What makes him, him. If that happens with an associate, bachelor's or no degree, so be it.

Sooner or later, our ship goes down. The question isn't how much money we earned, but what we did while we made the journey.

about David Cook...

David Cook is the award-winning city columnist for the Times Free Press, working in the same building where he began his post-college career as a sportswriter for the Chattanooga Free Press. Cook, who graduated from Red Bank High, holds a master's degree in Peace and Justice Studies from Prescott College and an English degree from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. For 12 years, he was a teacher at the middle, high school and university ...

Comments do not represent the opinions of the Chattanooga Times Free Press, nor does it review every comment. Profanities, slurs and libelous remarks are prohibited. For more information you can view our Terms & Conditions and/or Ethics policy.

A degree in health-related professions trumps nearly every other. This is true in terms of income as well as job security for two reasons, 1st you can't outsource the jobs and 2nd people get older everyday. But what you missed is the fact that in order to get into one of the coveted slots of an allied health program a student must take years of prerequisites such as intro to humanities, puplic speaking, literature of the western world or religions of the world just to name a few. In fact when a student finished that two year degree in radiological technologies that student has 110 credit hrs. That is enough to qualify for a 4 year degree but CSTTC is not a four year university so that student, with just a class or two more, will have earned two two year degrees. And yes CSTTC still follows the greek model of a well rounded education so a student is exposed to a little of everything. With that being said : At the bottom, in an enlightened mess, are the humanities: religious studies, history, English literature, psychology and philosophy, which earn graduates about $25,000 a year. This is a fact used to support a subjective observation and your questions that follow can only be answered by one's individual world view. Such as this question: Is it worth more to have a person with the knowedge of physics and radiation safety when you go to the ER after an accident or medical emergency or to have someone speak elegantly about thier feelings while you wait? A true philosopher would know it is just stuff , that you can't buy happiness and cable in every room will polute the mind.Sooner or later, our ship goes down. The question isn't how much money we earned, but what we did while we made the journey. I couldn't agree more but no amount of college can teach that lesson.

September 19, 2012 at 10:01 a.m.
Easy123 said...


"is the concept that no matter how hard you work, no matter how many sacrifices you make, you should not keep the rewards of that hard work."

You will not find that anywhere in this article.

"Less successful people will literally die in a boat accident as victims of the more successful. Or they may keep you from owning a riding lawnmower."

These two statements make absolutely no sense whatsoever.

"But the Progressive/Obamist mindset just brushes all that aside."


"The Progessive mindset wants the boy to pay more and more of his earnings to support those people who make bad choices."

False and erroneous. No one is asking anyone to pay for anyone but themselves. And most poor people didn't make bad choices. They work hard. They're just unlucky.

"But they shouldn't be helped for the rest of their lives with the earnings of my boy."

They aren't.

"But that is what Progessive/Obamism is all about."

Wrong again.

September 19, 2012 at 11:46 a.m.
davidcook said...

JonRoss, sounds like your son is a good man. Happy, I hope. That's what this column was about, not redistribution or Obamism. Give him my best. You must take some of the credit.

September 19, 2012 at 12:56 p.m.
Easy123 said...


"Go away easy. You know not of what you speak."

HAHAHA! I won't go away and I know plenty of what I speak.

Your entire last post is based on conjecture and things that have not or will not happened.

September 19, 2012 at 1:51 p.m.
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