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    The higher learning

    Hi. I’ve been busy moving into a new apartment, taking a short vacation, and finishing a project at work with a very aptly styled “aggressive” deadline, so I’ve been happily unable to devote much time to thinking about unattractive leftist politicians in various states of deshabille, which seem to make up most of the news lately.

    Of course, people can be idiots with a mindless sense of entitlement with their clothes on, too. This character is all pissy that Megan McArdle’s been using his posts about defaulting on his student loan debt as a springboard for arguing that, well, defaulting on student loan debt is unethical (via Instapundit). If you want to get a sense why a growing number of people think Ivy League humanities degrees are a ripoff, just take a gander at some of his logic:

    You know who the first person was to sit me down and really talk to me about the seriousness of my debt exposure and the years of hard work I was going to have to put in to even begin to pay them off? A partner from my law firm, during the dinner my firm was having to convince me and others to accept their summer associate offers. That’s right, the first time an adult even attempted to explain to me what I had done to my future happened 18 months after I’d done it and as part of his attempt to sell me on being an indentured servant to my debt at his firm instead of somebody else’s.

    The second serious conversation I had about my debt load was during my exit interview for law school a week before I graduated.

    I’ve had to jump through more hoops to purchase a cell phone! I can’t smoke a cigarette in the park without the government stepping in to “save” me from my own choices. But I went from a happy college graduate to a person who will be in debt for the rest of his life on the advice and counsel of a form and two conversations over a three-year period.

    Excuse me if I feel like my creditors maybe took advantage of me and my admitted stupidity, just a little bit. Excuse me if, when I list the things that are important to me in my life, paying these particular people back isn’t exactly on my top ten list of things that determine my moral citizenship. The moral difference between the student loan industry and racketeering is what, exactly?

    Megan and I don’t know each other, but we were in basically the same major, at the same college, at the same time. I assume we had the same sorts of conversations with our friends junior and senior years. Everyone knew that the kids who went to medical or law school were basically mortgaging their twenties and early thirties in exchange for very high earning potential, which they would only really get to enjoy in middle age, after soldiering through years of punishing, soul-destroying work for demanding superiors…and paying off their debt. (Everyone also knew—this was twenty years ago—that tenure-track jobs in the humanities were getting scarce, which makes you wonder about all these people in the last decade who assumed they’d sail from their PhDs into secure, comfy professorships, but that’s a topic for another day.) The big loans were reasonable because of the big payoff later, as long as you didn’t mind locking yourself into one career. This was the sort of thing people talked about all the time.

    Of course, pre-med requires a lot of specific hard-science courses, so people didn’t really drift into it because they couldn’t think of anything better to do. Not so law school. Everyone who went to a hoity-toity college knows plenty of classmates who had shapeless arty/wordy careers for a few years and then decided getting a JD was the only way to convert their English major into a pile of money and prestige, whether or not they had any serious interest in jurisprudence. That the life of an attorney isn’t all like that moment in The Accused when Kelly McGillis suddenly finds that her hours of poring over reference books have yielded a way to get justice for Jodie Foster is presumably more real to them after they’re ensconced as junior associates than it was when they were in law school, but most of them realize that the grunt work is part of the bargain. Erin O’Connor had a good post the other day about, in part, aimless humanities majors that addressed this issue more generally.

    In the last few years, quite a few people really have been had by their grad schools. They went through mediocre programs with inflated placement rates and found themselves unemployable at the end. But that doesn’t describe Elie Mystal, the gentleman under discussion here. He went to Harvard College, then chose Harvard Law School (having also been accepted at Yale), then landed a job in a big-guns firm. Then he decided he didn’t like it and shouldn’t have to stay in it just because of some silly debt he’d taken at 22 when he wasn’t really thinking too hard about it. Seriously:

    I don’t expect McArdle to understand this, but you people who have actually been in one of these Biglaw jobs will understand what I’m talking: by the end, there was no amount of money my law firm could have paid me to stay. America could have been taken over by a fascist government and I could have been ordered to work at the firm, and I would have Von Trapp-ed my family over the Catskills into Canada. I know so many of you know what I’m talking about: when you are done with the particular job of being a Biglaw associate, you are D-O-N-E.

    Okay, but then you still have the D-E-B-T you signed on for. It’s perfectly understandable that Mystal decided he’d rather be a blogger and commentator than a lawyer, but plenty of people stay in jobs they hate because they have debts they voluntarily incurred and they, uh, feel obligated to pay them off.

    Perhaps it really is true that Mystal’s loan officers glossed over the amount of debt he was getting himself into, in the hopes he wouldn’t think about it too hard before getting himself on the hook. On the other hand, if he signed the damned contract and said he’d read it, what were they supposed to do—sit him down and confirm that he knew 100,000 is a Very Large Number? Your lender can assess whether you’re likely to be able to repay your loan. Your lender can’t assess whether you’re drifting into a career you might burn out on in half a decade. Anyway, given that Mystal appears to have been one of those humanities majors who were using law school to avoid dealing with the reality of the job market, it’s hard to imagine that any warnings about the reality of owing USD105 would have had much effect. And where were his parents, his advisor, his career counselor, his pastor, or his shrink in all this? When I was deciding what to do after graduation, I sought out people who I knew would make me think about the things that could go wrong, including, yes, “What if you figure out you don’t like your job five years down the line?” Mystal apparently didn’t, and now he not only wants to fob off responsibility for his own bad choices on other people but also wants to cast himself as bravely taking charge of his life. What a shyster.

    He does have a point that Megan McArdle’s analogy (between student-loan corporations and department stores) isn’t very good when you extend it, but I didn’t get the sense she was trying to extend it. Her point was to demonstrate that “Oh, well, the recipient is a big, nasty corporation” doesn’t relieve you of the moral obligation of paying the money you owe (as opposed to being able to feel morally and ethically good about yourself if you default, because everyone always knew that was an option you had). And really, even with dry goods, you can’t just use them for a while and then return them if you decide you’re tired of them. Mystal’s not alleging fraud. HLS gave him a degree that performed as promised and got him a job in a tony law firm. Now, unless I’m seriously misunderstanding, he’s just decided the work doesn’t suit him. That’s too bad, but someone with a sofa he’d bought from Macy’s five years ago would be equally unable to return it for store credit just because he decided it was the wrong shade of blue. Mystal wants his case to be instructive to others, but he himself is taking all the wrong lessons from it.

    Added on 20 June: Thanks to Erin O’Connor at Critical Mass for the link. She adds this to a post that generally agrees with what I wrote here:

    Caveat: I do think schools should educate students much better than they do about what student loans mean. They should explain how interest works, what their payment obligations will be when they graduate, what that means for what kind of major they can afford to pursue, what kind of job they will have to get, and what kinds of challenges they may have down the road when it comes to buying homes, raising families, etc. It’s well known that many undergrads today are bordering on innumeracy. A great many are financially illiterate. As I have argued before, colleges and universities have an obligation not only to ensure that they address those deficits through required coursework, but also to avoid exploiting those deficits by arranging loans they know most of their students can neither understand nor pay back.

    I don’t disagree with any of that. Indeed, one of the most ugsome things about Mystal’s line is that he’s clearly trying to slush himself together in readers’ minds with poor, unsophisticated kids who assume any loan you take out for private college or grad school will help you attain an earning potential that makes them easy to pay back. From what I’ve been reading over the last few years since returning to the States, a lot of those people are victims of outright fraud.

    Mystal is a victim of his own combination of Harvard-level book smarts and self-awareness-level woolly-mindedness. Maybe it really is true that an Aunt Louise or a Grandpa Dave could have made him change his mind by taking him aside and saying, “Look, kiddo, we’d be very proud to have a Harvard Law graduate in the family, but do you really want to commit to paying off loans until you’re 42? Why not work for a year or two…do something that lets you volunteer politically or try your hand at writing for pay before you decide to take this particular plunge?” Given his clear instinct for rationalizing whatever he’s taken it into his head to do, I’m not sure even that would have worked, though.

    Anyway, I don’t know what Harvard was like in the early ’00s, but I remember pretty clearly what Penn was like in the early ’90s. The financial aid forms were long and annoying, but you didn’t have to know much beyond the compound-interest formula to figure out what they meant in real terms. The exit interview and presentation were supposed to be pretty much a formality; if you didn’t already know what you’d gotten into, it meant that you hadn’t read what you were signing or asked one of the advisors in the financial aid office to explain what it meant the whole time you’d been in school. Not anyone else’s fault, I don’t think.

    7 Responses to “The higher learning”

    1. […] the thing is, as both O’Connor and others note, it’s disingenuous of Mystal to claim he wasn’t aware that 1) Big-time law is not […]

    2. Mark Alger says:

      It’s been a LOT longer than 24 years, Sean. Forty years ago, when I was thinking about college, there were warnings that humanities degrees were worth — maybe — the parchment the diploma was printed on. About that time, Heinlein took a jaundiced look at a college catalog in (one presumes) the University of California system. This is not, of course, grad school, but still…

      The value of a college education was overstated then, and it hasn’t been enhanced any since by stuffing everybody and his dog into the system. You’d have to be, IMHO, singularly tone-deaf to think otherwise. And Mystal must have had SOME inkling of that, since he chose law.

      Or maybe not, considering the glut of lawyers here lately.


    3. Sean says:

      Good to see you, Mark! Agreed on everything. I was fortunate to have one of the counselors in the career office who were really great—enthusiastic about helping you find something that suited you but realistic about what was marketable. What she told me was “Your Japanese study will be a real asset, but you’re going to have to work until you’re really good at it.” And she was right. Well, I think there actually were plenty of jobs for people who had just-passable proficiency, but being able to read and write definitely helped. And it kept me in play for consulting and freelance work when I came back to the States just as the economy was going haywire in 2008.

      BTW, if you have the stomach for yet round of the another but-the-little-darlings-learn-critical-thinking! defense of humanities programs, Salon (‘ulp!) had one a few days ago.

    4. Mark Alger says:

      Looking over my comment, I see I left something out. That essay by Heinlein should be in his Expanded Universe collection, if memory serves, and it should reveal both how far we’ve come in the intervening decades, and how depressingly short a distance “how far” really is.


    5. Eric Scheie says:

      People not only think they aren’t bound by contracts, they see contracts as instruments of oppression.

      Convenient, isn’t it? (I know a couple who sold a house at a loss, and blame the buyers.)

    6. Sean says:

      For not altruistically coughing up more money than the property was worth? That’s hilarious! Probably not all that atypical anymore, but hilarious.

    7. sarah says:

      Yeah, as a writer I’m dealing with a house who simply won’t give me the rights back, though the series is out of print and they’re no longer sending me statements (though still selling ebooks.) It’s in direct violation of contract, but … It’s going to come to lawyers.

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