Rob, Political Philosopher, Father of 2, CA
Rob is a Ph.D. candidate in Political Science at Stanford and lives in California with his wife, Nancy, and their two children, Norah and Brennan (ages 4 years and 3 months, respectively). Rob and Nancy are originally from Canada, and have been living in California for nearly a decade.
So, you have two kids now (who I love very much), when you think about them grown up & out of school, what do you want for them?
Far more than I would have thought 10 years ago I worry about her financial stability and in a way I never would have predicted, given my own trajectory and thoughts about what education should be about - I would actually strongly consider advising her to make that financial stability her strategic choice.
Beyond that, the way universities work is a road to exploitation. Creating this idea that you can pursue any dream but then you can often end up in a cul-de-sac. You look at what I’m doing [with my education] right now and it’s totally the opposite of what I’m suggesting.
Though, you know, I say that, but you look at what I’m doing right now and it’s exactly the opposite. If you ask me in 10 years and this has all resolved itself and I’m not finishing my PhD I might have something different to say – my opinion might be the product of the moment.
Tell me more about why – what do you think financial stability brings you that it’s the first thing you thought of?
Right now it feels like it’s easier and easier to become someone who’s on the outside looking in – at the end of the day I don’t want her to be someone who has to suffer. It’s kind of doom and gloom or apocalyptic but really I don’t know what’s to come and I worry about it. …No one had to think that way when we were in college. Our parents didn’t have to say, “I wonder if they could end up not financially stable.” You went to a good school and you’re fine – that’s not true anymore. And I don’t even want her to go to an elite school.
I think the pursuit of elite education it distorts childhood in a way that has long term consequences sometimes. I think you’re not allowed to be a child anymore. You’re 7 years old and you’re thinking about where you’re going to go to college.
I feel like we’re torn between two worlds because we grew up in a different time and place and no one thought about going somewhere far away for school – if you did really well you went to the local UBC (University of British Columbia), the university that was nearby, and you got a $10,000 scholarship there. In high school they told you to go to community college for a few years and find yourself and it’ll be less money.
And that’s what I did. But then you jump into the other side of the pond and see all the things – see reality about where people get to in their lives by going to these places and the way they open doors for people. Then you know what they can do for your own child and now you have access to them now. But at the same time I feel like we have a kind of context or background that I value. Maybe that’ just because it’s mine but I value it and think it’s important and want my daughter to have that too.
Can you say more about that?
The way to get into college, what is valued, the hierarchical nature of colleges in the US that doesn’t really exist the same way in Canada or Europe. In Canada you’re the kind of school where they do graduate work or the kind of school where you don’t. In Canada there’s not a difference between McGill and UBC or U Vancouver – they’re all the same and publicly funded. So If you want a new life experience you go across the country, but there’s not a qualitative different in the students. It doesn’t get you a leg up. But here it’s structured in a way that you want your kid to have every opportunity open to them then you want them to get into a top place. But getting them into a top place is going to ruin them as a human being. So you’re choosing between whether they turn into a good human being who lacks opportunity or distorted, broken human being who has the world at their fingertips. To me that’s the choice. I’ll send her to Berkeley I guess. ;)
So we’re talking about financial stability and success, but then I keep hearing about you want her to play and be in an environment she flourishes in. What do you see as the role of school in getting her to the life you want her to have?
I think it’s the most important. It helps them to understand what the route to success looks like even.
Not success. It opens and exposes them to the possibility of exploring different routes in life. In a way that is not so available if you’re outside of these areas. If you go to Stanford and you’re like, I’m interested in becoming a lawyer, then you can have concrete examples of what that means. People right at your fingertips you can tell you about it. It must have been available in our neighborhood but it was somehow culturally separate. I don’t know, maybe it’s just a personal thing and I didn’t seek it out.
Maybe it’s not even their fault, but I feel like students are more interested in what their educational experience is going to DO for them rather than about learning. I don’t know I can blame them because when they look out on the world they’re seeing a very different world than what I saw when I was in college. I get kids all the time who tell me, “this is really interesting I’d like to take more of this but there’s no point”. If I told them how much I make they’d lose interest.
Do you think schooling is doing what it should for all students? Creating financial security and helping them remain curious - for Norah & for all students?
I’m kind of backtracking now on what I actually want for Norah because, do I think that an education system could do it. But will she be able to have financial security for herself, will she be able to have the fulfilling experience I’d like her to have? And be able to experience it as an exploration in the way I have? I don’t know.
I couldn’t do an internship because I needed a job. Now it’s like you can’t get a job without it so maybe people like me get a loan and go get internships. I think, you know, the education system is designed to help – higher education is increasingly targeted and focused on selling financial stability to students.
Ugh, actually I don’t care about that. Part of me thinks, is it the education system that generates the lack of opportunity or is it something else? Is it a social problem?
The answer is, yeah, obviously, yes. And the way the education system in the US is trending is in response to that attitude that universities should should be to maximize the size of their endowment and generate revenue and all these things that universities aren’t really supposed to be about. You hire a university president based on their ability to generate revenue for the school.
I don’t think I can answer your question and I think it’s an important question. I don’t see any reason why they can’t give her the skills to pursue her dreams, but will those dreams secure a good life anymore is what is in question. It can make her who she wants to be but I’m not sure if who she wants to be is going to be safe in the future.
That’s really profound.
Having a kid makes you think in these terms all the time. It makes you think of yourself in these terms too – there’s a difference between chasing your dreams as a 20 year old and chasing them as a 30 year old.
I feel shocked and tired and distressed when people ask me about the things like what Kindergarten we’re going to send her to. I don’t want to think about these things. I feel like I’m driven by a set of concerns I don’t think I should have to have. I don’t think I should have to have to craft my child’s education into something I don’t want it to be. But because if I don’t, everyone else is doing it…
It’s like everything I teach about. What’s right? Is it fair you have the money to pay for a treatment and have to wait in line anyway. Yes, it is fair. Would I do it for my own daughter? No. It’s the same in education and healthcare. Yeah, at the top, kids at Stanford get a wonderful education, learn interesting things and leave feeling like they can do anything and know how to go about doing it. The opportunities they have available to them are just amazing. There are kids I taught who I thought were just dullards and now they’re off doing ‘wonderful’ things now.
Do I want that for her, yeah, of course I want it for my kid.
I want her to be able to do what she wants and get paid money for it. She should be able to do things that society values and make money.
One reason I worried about having a boy is that there’s a lot of money involved in team sports – at the lower levels, there’s actual athletic return on investment. You get a private hitting or pitching coach. Or in hockey you’re doing cross-training with a personal trainer.
That’s NOT why I loved playing hockey, that’s not why any kid loves playing hockey. No one in the NHL is thinking, oh my favorite hours were those I spent on the skating treadmill because my parents could pay for it. I just didn’t want to deal with that with my son. I just want him to love it and play it and work out if he wants and figure things out for himself and not have to have this pre-planned route to semi-professionalization that I have to pay for and drive him towards.