Letter to a student

Tens of thousands of kids are starting higher education this month at universities and colleges all over this state. Some are going full time to elite schools like the University of Michigan or Kalamazoo College.

Some are struggling to afford to go to Wayne State University, where I teach. Some are working full time at Best Buy, or as a server in a dreary restaurant, and are trying to get their required courses out of the way at a community college, because it's cheaper. Some want to make a vast amount of money, and some just want to eventually qualify for a job they don't hate.

Some have set their sights on a major goal in life, one that's likely to change. And a few are just thinking about escaping their parents and partying.

And there may even be a few of these new students who, more than anything else, hope that higher education will help them to make sense out of this world. They know they need a job, but have a vague sense they don't have much of a clue as to how it all works: this nation, this society, this economy.

And if I could talk to anyone through this column, it would be them.

So this is to you, intelligent young members of the class who are starting higher education now. That's because in the long run, you will be the ones who matter. Some of you may look at this mess we've made of things and see a better way. Some may even, in the words of one of our least effective politicians, be able to "look outside the box" and come up with or invent solutions.

Some of you may even be so smart that you may realize that you really don't know anything at all. Yes, you do know how to do some stuff and know a lot about music and anime and software.

Your teachers filled your heads with facts and formulas. Some of you can do quadratic equations and maybe even explain the Electoral College.

Yet — no offense — you don't know how the world works.

You don't know why the automotive jobs your uncles had suddenly vanished, and they don't seem to have any hope for the future. You don't know why your tuition just went up a ton, and yet your government seems committed to spending billions of dollars on fighting an endless war in Iraq even they can't explain.

When you finally drive around Detroit, your state's largest city, you realize you haven't a clue how it got to be such a total mess. You look at the magnificent ruins of what were once powerful factories and stately homes.

You've been told the untidy, lazy, dirty blacks ruined Detroit, or that the white racists took all the money and fled. But you vaguely realize that you don't know, that there are so many things you don't know.

Well, young comrades, that's just fine. Welcome to the beginnings of wisdom. Hey, you haven't had time to learn any of the really important stuff, and this society doesn't make figuring out what is important easy, either.

For one thing, we in the media put a lot of toys and shiny objects in the way. You almost certainly know that Beyonce's dress flew up at some concert last week, so that everybody can now tune into YouTube and see her boobs.

But you may not realize that the future of your university, your education and your state depends a great deal on what the Legislature does this very month. Michigan starts the next fiscal year $1.8 billion-with-a-B in the hole. Your lawmakers have till Sept. 30 to figure out how to get that money. The bottom line is raise taxes or terribly damage higher ed, and you.

Why do you know about the thing that doesn't matter and not the thing that does? That's what you need to think about. Whether you plan to be a physician, a businessman, an engineer or a social worker, you need to learn to cut through all the nonsense and background noise.

You can't possibly figure out where you are going until you have some vague sense of where you are and where this crazy mixed-up world is. And you can't even do that very well without some knowledge of where it has been.

Otherwise, you might as well be a sheep, grazing happily on a patch of grass, entirely oblivious to the fact that you are right under a rumbling volcano, and a hungry wolf is eyeing you from a few yards away.

We make it easy to be a sheep in this society.

You'll be offered easy and simple explanations by all sorts of people who want to sell you on a system, an ideology, a god or themselves. You might want to listen politely, try some of these little mental straitjackets on, see how they fit. Many people find turning their brains over to the church or to the president or the Mackinac Center or the Revolutionary Communist Party more comfortable than thinking for themselves.

That is, until reality eventually hits them in the face.

What you need to do is to try and figure things out for yourself. You do that two ways: Start asking questions, lots of questions, and start acquiring furniture.

Intellectual furniture, that is. If you are moving into an apartment, you need stuff, right? A table and chairs, a sofa, a bed, etc. But you need some common intellectual furniture at least as much as you do those things, if not more.

That includes knowing as much as you can about who owns and runs this society. That includes knowing how our history shaped us.

You need to know, regardless of your major or your intended career, who we are and where we have been as a nation and a people.

Then you need to ask questions:

Why are we fighting in Iraq?

Why does our federal government spend all that money to blow up places elsewhere and not a cent to rebuild Detroit?

What really happened to the auto industry? Why are the corporations shipping our jobs overseas, and what kind of future does that mean we will have? What are your leaders doing to give you a future? Why do they make it so hard to get an education? Why are our roads and bridges crumbling, while those in other countries are not? Why are we told "immigrants" are so bad?

Why are we told that any kind of spending for the public good is wrong? What's likely to happen to the environment?

That's enough to get you started.

Whatever you do, you owe it to yourself to ask, ask, ask and think, and to brush aside the bullshit people wanting your votes or your money will tell you.

And don't despair. It takes a lot of work, but you can change things, if you really want to. If we are to have any kind of future at all, someone better.

Newspaper knowledge: Many readers have asked for more explanation of the shockingly low newspaper circulation figures I presented in my Aug. 22 column. In the current issue of DBusiness Magazine, I take a long look at what's happened to the local dailies, and why. Anyone gallantly wishing to be my food taster may apply in writing to my Wayne State office.

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. Contact him at [email protected]
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