Last night, we watched The Company Men. I put it in the Netflix queue about 9 months ago, when it first came out. In the intervening time, I've begun to ponder with an increasing sense of urgency the fate of higher education and whether or not we're working in a doomed industry.
Last night, as I watched the scenes where the company people determine who will be laid off and who will be saved, I just wanted to vomit. I felt I was seeing my future. At my school, we face declining student numbers. We've been hoping that the numbers will turn around before we have to make ever more painful choices. Lately, as we look at a landscape decimated by recession and a population that has no easy access to credit anymore, we've begun to think about what happens if those numbers don't increase or if they drop further. We've made all sorts of non-personnel cuts, like travel money and food at events kind of money. We all know what's coming next. Maybe enough people will retire or move before we have to make more personnel cuts.
There was a scene where one of the workers demanded to know how they were supposed to do the same amount of work or more even though they had hundreds less workers around to do the work. Yup, a familiar conversation. We must all do more with less. At some point, we can't do any more with less. At some point, we need to have a serious conversation about what is worth doing, what demands our precious resources and what we can let go of. I'm not hearing those conversations yet, either at my individual school or as a nation.
What might I do differently, if I was Queen of Higher Ed, and everybody had to do what I said? I'd probably look at the industries that we need, and I'd offer students full, paid education to students who would get degrees in that field. Alas, I'd have to be Queen of All Ed, since the fields we most need students for require much more math and science than they get in pre-college education.
I'd also like us to admit that not all fields require a 4 year degree--or graduate work. I'd like to see more of an apprentice program in many fields. Get rid of unpaid internships and put an apprentice program in place.
Many of us bemoan the lack of manufacturing jobs, and there's a very moving scene in The Company Men where two characters are at a shipyard and the older one talks about the amazing structures that they used to build. We don't do much of that in this country anymore.
And yet, as I zip around the Internet, I am amazed at the structures that so many of us build in cyberspace. I listen to news stories about new advances in the sciences--like this story about the spaces between DNA--and I think about all the frontiers we've crossed in the past twenty years, even as we stopped manufacturing so much physical stuff.
I also have monasteries and other intentional communities on the brain today; it's the feast day of St. Bernard of Clairvaux. Most monastic communities have thrived on the margins of their communities, many of them quietly preserving knowledge and pioneering interesting practices of all kinds as their societies self-destructed around them. I wonder what overlooked contemporary developments later generations will exclaim over.
The ending of The Company Men is oddly hopeful, and I won't ruin it for you here. Suffice it to say that the movie explores the idea of meaningful work and how we live lives that are integrated with our values, and it reaches some surprising conclusions.
I try to keep an upbeat attitude in these uncertain times. I know many members of my father's generation who had job upsets in midlife, but many of those upsets led those workers to more fulfilling work, to options they wouldn't have considered unless they had to. I know that most of us will need to reinvent ourselves numerous times, and I'm grateful that I have imagination and resources.
During our trip to Key Largo, we talked about a variety of possible directions. I've been feeling pulled towards being a hospice chaplain and also feeling pulled towards selling everything we own and buying a sailboat. One of my friends said, "You could be a sailing chaplain." Now there's an intriguing idea.
When we hang out on my sister's sailboat, we hear about all sorts of entrepreneurs out there on the Chesapeake: boats that will bring you fresh baked goods, boats that will come and empty your holding tanks, boats that will bring you gas, water, ice, beer, whatever you left on shore or ran out of.
Let's see, I have an interest in theology, an interest in creativity, and I'm fascinated at that intersection. I've thought of buying a huge plot of land and creating a retreat center and intentional community (like Bernard of Clairvaux did!). Could I do something similar, but smaller, on a sailboat? Is a sailboat too small for a group of retreatents or for someone who wanted contemplative time? Hmmm.
How about for people who wanted to explore their creativity? Poetry Practicum off the Peninsula? Collaging by the Coast?
There are lots of retreat centers on land. There are lots of semester at sea type programs. I wonder if there are any smaller, more intimate approaches to either. Hmm.
I don't pretend to have easy answers, or answers of any kind. I expect I'll continue to explore these issues and questions here, for years to come.
Barefoot in The Briar Cliff Review
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