After much delay, the long-anticipated guest post from Jac has been completed. It's a little lengthy, but well worth your time. As always, submit any comments or questions you may have so I know I'm not just posting to myself.
About two years ago I hit the streets armed with a 3-year liberal arts degree and did something that many new university grads are finding frustratingly improbable: I found a full-time, unionized job with benefits, a job that pays a living wage, and, most importantly, a job that I love. It's a job that appears to have been designed with me in mind, a job teaching literacy to prison inmates. It's the perfect job for a bleeding-heart bookworm, grammar aficionado and prison justice activist. I spend my days circling adverbs with car thieves, helping the Native Syndicate edit their poetry, and showing my students that yes they can learn fractions – and in fact they probably already know how to divide an ounce into quarters. On a good day, I go home at night thinking that I make life a little better for some of the most beleaguered victims of socio-economic disparity, and that's all I've ever really wanted to do.
On a bad day, I watch one of my students finish his sentence and walk out the front door of the Winnipeg Remand Centre with no jacket on and all his possessions in a plastic bag, knowing that I'll almost certainly see him again in three weeks' time, and I realize that in the grand scheme of things, what I do makes no difference at all. My students return to the social conditions from which they came – poverty, addiction, and chaos – and a slightly improved knowledge of sentence structure is unlikely to change those things. Let's face it, even a Grade 12 diploma is unlikely to change those things.
Anyone with even a rudimentary knowledge of capitalism knows that our economic system is a hierarchy, that some people are required to suffer on the lower rungs of the ladder so that those at the top can be unnecessarily wealthy. Those of us who are partway up try to assuage our own guilt by telling ourselves that those at the bottom are there for a reason, and they could improve their lot in life if only they would get it together, get sober, get motivated, and most of all, get educated. But while individual poor people may share the condition of being uneducated, the class of “the poor” does not exist due to a lack of education. It exists because it needs to exist in order for the hierarchy to be maintained. And even in the unlikely event that a good portion of my clients became sufficiently educated to get decent jobs, this would not mean fewer people in poverty and in jail. It would only mean different people in poverty and in jail. And even in the impossible event that every one of the desperately poor got a Grade 12 (or even a university) education, this would not mean full-employment and an end to crime and poverty. It would only mean a decrease in the market value of a Grade 12 or university education. This is already happening, of course. It's why our parents' generation could get a good union job with a Grade 12 diploma but our friends still wait tables with a university degree. Education is the solution? I am at a total loss to convey just what irresponsible, mean-spirited bullshit I think that is.
I'm unlikely ever to be successful in educating my students out of poverty, and to be honest, if I ever “succeeded” in my mission to promote conventional employment and respect for the law as the solution to life's problems, and I walked by a Burger King to see one of my students who formerly made a decent living selling illegal street drugs wearing a hair net and scooping french fries to collect $9.00 an hour, I don't know that I would feel triumphant. In fact, I am quite confident that I would go home and weep like I've never wept before.
On the one hand, I love my job and I think there's some value in spending my days being the kind of person who is kind to inmates. On the other hand, without serious social and economic reform, I am wasting my time. Worse than wasting my time, I am promoting the ridiculous and victim-blaming idea that education by itself is the answer. I am telling these guys that if only they would learn to read better, they would have a good job and a good life. Ultimately, I am just giving them false hope.
And because I spend 40 hours a week dispensing false hope and collecting a paycheque from it, I not only prop up an economic system I denounce, I also forfeit half of the waking hours that I could be using to write angry letters, march in the streets, and otherwise rail against the establishment. As it is, I am, like most working people, tired at the end of the day and concerned mainly with cleaning my apartment and making a sandwich.
But people need to eat to live and need to work to eat, so what's the answer? Is it, like my best friend and fellow radical, Rob, proposed, to defy economic participation altogether and flee to a commune? Sounds tempting, but isn't that just shirking responsibility? It's not even me that the system is harming, it's all those inmates (and the un-incarcerated poor, and the folks working at Burger King, and the folks working overseas making our shirts and our shoes...). How, in good conscience, could I just leave?
After much contemplation, I came up with what has come to be known as The Plan: a slight reformulation of the traditional 1950s child-rearing arrangement. Two partners conspire to share a home and a lifetime (or, more realistically, part of one). One brings home the bacon (that's me), and the other devotes half of their waking hours to writing angry letters, marching in the streets, and otherwise railing against the establishment. No children are produced. Both partners evangelize their chosen lifestyle to anyone who can be convinced to listen, in an attempt to create a new cultural and social movement, one in which every one hour of complicity with capitalism will be counterbalanced by one hour of spousal rebellion.
You need a partner for this activity, obviously. By unrelated coincidence I promoted my best friend and fellow radical, Rob, to object of romantic interest just a few short months after I first conceived of The Plan. He was still hung up on the commune thing, but like any good couple, we compromised, and settled on eleven years of The Plan, followed by migration to a hippie commune of his choice. Or maybe we will start our own.
One commenter on the blog made the very good point that the working partner in a Plan arrangement may come to feel like a martyr if they believe that only their spouse is doing fulfilling work. Fortunately, I don't think this will be true for me. I do love what I do, almost more than anything else; it's just that the only way I can actually live with myself is if it's not all that I do. Sharing half my salary with someone whose purpose is to make a real difference gives me the kind of guilt-alleviation that I imagine donating $100 to charity gives to other people who feel bad about the fact that they're not poor but that some people are.
But to those other people, I say: it's not enough, and will never be enough, and I think you know it. Do something more, now! Grab a partner and fight capitalism! You'll have less guilt and be happier at work, and you'll have someone to clean the apartment and make sandwiches with at the end of the day.