As a SUNY Binghamton graduate — class of ‘74 — I have some sobering words for the current undergraduate community.
An anthropology major who lived and breathed cultural anthropology, I graduated with the award for the best student in the social sciences. I was pursuing what I thought was a well-focused dream to become a professor of anthropology.
What I learned in the past 40 plus years, is that life in “the real world” is completely at odds with the academic fantasy as it was presented to me, and as I am sure as it is presented to many undergraduates today. The academic world that I immersed myself in, as well as the social environment of Harpur — as it was then called — was one that stressed openness, flexibility, discussion, justice and even compassion. I was not taught about the work-a-day world in which sterile conformity and adherence to the rules of those in absolute power are the real imperatives. I know that many young graduates today — not only at SUNY B but at other liberal arts schools — are being mislead by the notion that they can make a difference, and many of them quit their jobs or otherwise become quite disenchanted when they discover that the principles they were taught have no currency in the real world.
I never got an iota of career guidance when I was at Harpur; I had no idea, for example, that the various levels of government offered what turned out to be, by far, the best and most secure work opportunities for graduates over time. I was never taught about the incredible strength and power of government unions, for example, in protecting their own at the expense of those in the private sector. I never even considered that all the professors at SUNY Binghamton were unionized state employees; somehow I had imagined they were above such “petty” concerns.
My advice to young people at SUNY Binghamton, particularly those in the liberal arts, is not to be misled by dreamy notions of academic fulfillment or self-fulfillment , especially via “create your own” majors and bogus academic programs, even some of the standard departments like anthropology, which in this Internet age, as well as this age of war and poverty throughout much of the undeveloped nations, has almost no value, except for the most gifted. Other social science departments offer no real training in the “real world” except as they are a stepping stone to more practical careers, and, in the very rare case, a segue into the privileged, elite world of academia.
To an even greater degree than it was in my day, the real world is controlled by vested interests, corporate autocracy, public relations, the power of government at every level, money and conformity. I urge students not to dream frivolous, immature dreams as did I back in the day, fed and nurtured by a University that was just interested in maintaining enrollees in the various departments. As soon as you are gone, the University will fade like a mirage. Know that whatever stimulating experiences you have are, for the most part, self contained, and that following your graduation, you will have to pay strict adherence to the rules others set for you. Most of all, develop a sense of what your real strengths are, and what skills are suited for the job market.
Even a core value of anthropology — humanistic relativism — that I would have thought would have stood the test of time seems to have no place in this society. Managing a residential facility for the mentally disabled, for example, I have come to realize that it does not seem that this value has any relevance any more, as state regulators site structure, quantification and compliance over compassion and a caring, needs-driven approach to residential care. The state bureaucracy is more powerful now, under a “liberal Democrat” than it was under Rockefeller’s era. Moreover the University has done next to nothing to bridge the income gap between the city of Binghamton and itself. It may have spoken a great storm about economic and political justice, but it has, if anything, helped marginalize Downtown Binghamton and its immediate surroundings over the past half century.
Although I was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa, and spent innumerable hours at study, I learned not one new skill in my pursuit of my Honor’s degree, not even proficiency in a foreign language, so vital in anthropological and historical research. This is a critical time in your lives, where you are investing your time and money. Don’t squander it on dreams that can never come to pass. And remember that SUNY Binghamton, in the end, is just a self-fulfilling state institution whose self interests are, first and foremost, those of their own.
When you begin to understand the dissonance between your experience at SUNY Binghamton and the real world, or strive to develop usable real-life skills, you will not be bitterly disappointed by what awaits you after you graduate as I was. If you dream as I did, be prepared for failure. You may enjoy this time in a higher pursuit — as did I — but just remember that the world out there is relatively unforgiving and cares little about you.