Cook: Your soul or your wallet?

Cook: Your soul or your wallet?

September 19th, 2012 by David Cook in Opinion Columns

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.