Tonight on Marketplace from American Public Media, they ran a story about a couple and their struggles to make it in the current depression/recession. Part of the dialog between the show’s host, Kai Ryssdal, and one of the guests, Caitlin Shetterley, illustrates people’s expectations about a college degree and the way that is changing:
Ryssdal: So there you are, first week of January 2009, you have a brand new baby, but your husband’s jobs have all been canceled; he’s getting no contracting, no freelancing. The whole country is literally thinking that this is it, because we’ve had the crash in the fall of the previous year. What was going through your mind?
Shetterley: What was going through my mind? I mean, I was angry. I think many of us, many people in my generation anyway — I can’t speak for say, my grandparents’ generation who went through the Depression — but we’ve grown up believing that if we work hard and strive for our dreams, they will come true. And I believed that.
Ryssdal: Past tense, you’re speaking in the past tense. “I believed that.”
Shetterly: Yeah, I did believe that. Now I don’t believe it anymore. I don’t know that just hard work makes it. I don’t know, I think a lot of luck makes it.
Shetterley is critiquing the myth of the United States as a meritocracy. Of course, her comments come in the context of an economic crisis, but I maintain that even in good times, luck, connections, skin privilege, and privilege of all kinds have almost always trumped merit in our society.