There’s a scene in the 1998 film Primary Colors where the protagonist, a philandering Democratic presidential candidate named Jack Stanton, addresses a union of troubled factory workers. “Muscle jobs go where muscle labor is cheap,” he tells the skeptical crowd, “and that is not here. So if you wanna compete, you’re gonna have to exercise a different set of muscles. The one between your ears.” These words elicit rapturous approval from Jack’s idealistic campaign manager, Henry Burton, who is eager to assuage his burgeoning doubts about his boss’s character.
Back when I first watched the film, I felt much as Henry did — enthralled by the allure of a dream. I was a twenty-three year old graduate student in hot pursuit of a career in physics. I believed in the power of education. I believed in the verity of the Enlightenment values I had absorbed as a child — values like intellectual freedom, moral progress, empiricism, tolerance, and individual worth. Jack’s speech is built on these values. He proposes lifelong education and self-betterment as the proper path to economic salvation; indeed, as the most effective solution to the perennial problems of capitalism itself.
At the time, I would have agreed with him. But that was twenty years ago. I suppose my views have changed since then.
I was reared in what might charitably be called a working class neighborhood. When I was eleven or twelve, my stepfather received a discharge from the army — on medical grounds, ostensibly, though there may have been more to it than that. After nearly twenty years of service as a non-commissioned officer, this was a sudden and traumatic rupture for him, and he struggled to find work. He ultimately landed a job as a bus driver, and later as a high school janitor. Lest this latter fact conjure images of that wry and witty broom-pusher from The Breakfast Club, I should also mention that my stepfather was a brutal, ignorant sadist who physically intimidated his coworkers and had paranoid delusions that his superiors were persecuting him. The daily ritual of his homecoming — the roar of his Chevy pulling up the driveway, the click of the parking brake, the heavy footfalls, the screen door screeching open — always filled me with dread. There was a brief, blissful hour between my delivery from school and his arrival, and I spent most of that time steeling myself for whatever foul mood was about to step through that door.
He despised his job. The so-called dignity of blue collar work, that ethereal substance peddled by countless T.V. pundits the world round, always eluded him. Every day brought some fresh proletarian grievance, some monstrous tale of managerial incompetence or abuse. Thankfully, my own path would be rather different — a gifted student, I was destined to escape my working class roots. My stepfather regarded my academic interests with a deep and abiding suspicion. It may be that he felt intimidated by intellectual pursuits generally, but all I remember was that he seemed to consider them little more than pretentious twaddle. The only valuable skills were the sturdy, practical ones — replacing a fan belt in the car, or building a deck in the backyard. Everything else was the province of sissies.
By the time I left home to attend MIT, he had more or less accepted the reality that my academic achievements had opened doors he would never have attempted himself. I think he was embarrassed by the extent of the financial aid I received; my family had essentially no assets to speak of, and could ill afford the expense. If not for MIT’s largesse to indigent students such as myself, there is simply no way I could have matriculated there. Though he expressed some surprise at their generous investment in my education, there was, I think, a faint tincture of pride in his astonishment.
I never discovered what precisely he thought about the whole situation, though, because I hardly ever spoke to him again. There were the Christmas visits, of course, but most of that time was spent with friends. I had little desire to dredge up old memories, and as far as I was concerned, there was nothing of substance for us to discuss. My mother divorced him while I was in graduate school. My brothers tell me he became a pathological hoarder after that, a tendency my mother had somehow kept in check throughout twenty-five years of marriage. Left to his own devices, he descended even further into bitterness and paranoia, an old man lost in a six-foot high maze of his own junk.
The other night, while surfing through the premium movie channels, I came upon Primary Colors. There on the screen, undimmed by the passage of twenty years, was Jack Stanton’s shining speech to the factory workers. I found myself imagining my stepfather in the audience. What would he have thought about Stanton’s plan? Would the prospect of lifelong education have stirred a passion for self-improvement from the depths of his soul?
I realized in that moment that Stanton was wrong. Education is not the path to salvation. And it’s not the answer to unfettered capitalism. It’s just another way for politicians like Stanton to blame the victims of an exploitative system.
Granted, there is real value to vocational training, especially if you want to enter the skilled trades. But it’s unrealistic to expect huge swaths of your workforce, many of them older and set in their ways, to pursue an entirely new skill set at the drop of a hat. It’s also unrealistic to expect a huge proportion of the population to pursue a college education just so they can participate in the so-called “knowledge economy.”
Hell, my stepfather barely graduated high school. Some people just aren’t temperamentally suited to higher education. It’s not a defect, and they shouldn’t be punished for it. But the modern American economy wants coders, data scientists and program managers. What about the blue collar guy, the guy who just wants to make a decent living and do something useful with his hands? He’s not an entrepreneur and he doesn’t want to be. He wants to live in one place, put down roots, and participate in his local community. Tech workers may look down on this attitude — after all, many of us roamed far and wide in search of education and employment. But that’s not entirely fair. There are many different kinds of people, and there are many different ways to contribute to society.
I don’t have any answers to this particular conundrum. I’m just musing.