Tomorrow I will put a young fellow of my close acquaintance on a plane to Paris where he will go back to researching the social implications of insect infestations on farms in early modern France.
Already, he is showing the twitchiness he develops as the prospect of diving back into the archives and rooting through centuries old documents draws near.
Yet if I am to believe sources as disparate as Maclean's magazine and the new national president of one of the country's largest trade unions, he is wasting his youth and dooming his future.
In this week's Maclean's editorial urging students to "face the financial facts of education" and today's Globe and Mail column by Jerry Dias of the new mega-union Unifor, education and work are part of a continuum whose end is earning money and becoming a successful economic actor in a voraciously consumerist society.
Citing a recent CIBC study, the Maclean's piece gives a detailed account to the decimal point of average differentials in financial outcomes for Canadian high school, college, and university graduates. It also ranks the earning power prospects of university undergraduates by faculty. Stop the presses and hold the phone: engineering tops the list while fine arts is actually significantly lower than a mere high school diploma.
"(D)espite your best efforts, future financial success seems largely predetermined by the course of study you select in first year," Maclean's warns students.
The same grim economic determinism permeates Dias's column, where class-warrior labour unions are hailed as all that stands between working Canadians and the perdition of being unable to buy that second 80" flat screen TV at Costco.
"(L)ousy wages are just the tip of the iceberg," Dias writes. "The result is a growing gap between a lucky elite (the top percentiles who pocket most of the gains of economic growth) and the rest of us. Millions of workers are angry. Young workers might be the angriest. They did what they were supposed to do (followed the rules, stayed in school, got a degree) but have been relegated to lousy jobs that badly undervalue their true potential."
So, in the immortal words of the Mothers of Invention, we're only in it for the money. And the money will, miraculously, make us all part of the top percentiles comprising the lucky elite. All that is worth measuring is economic. As a result, paradoxically, every job is a relatively lousy job and all wages are relatively lousy wages until we arrive on that Heavenly workplace shore where true potential will always be validated by how it is remunerated.
In fairness, it's understandable how such a mentality might find purchase in a society where, according to Maclean's, average university fees have risen 20 per cent in the past five years, and in a country where average student debt loads are often cited as topping $25,000.
Still, it seems to me there is something, shall we say confused, about holus bolus turning a cost issue into a perceived benefit issue. If graduating from university costs too much, that doesn't necessarily mean the experience of gaining a university degree should be discounted solely on the basis of dollars and cents. Surely, it makes more sense to safeguard the experience and find ways to reduce the cost. One of the more extreme-sounding solutions, which I happen to favour, is acknowledging that an undergraduate university degree might now be the basic price of cultural, social, and economic entry that a high school diploma was in the recent past. If so, then we need to consider treating it as worth being tuition-free.
Without cuing the saccharine violins and indulging in maudlin nostalgia, there is a lifetime of non-economic benefit to even the first four years of university life, never mind graduate and post-graduate work. There is a joyfulness, a sense of possibility, a wonder of exploration and discovery that a society does well to cultivate in its citizens.
Or as the young man of my acquaintance said as we discussed the state of his research on insect infestations in early France: "I know what I'm doing right now is as good as my life is ever going to be. Whatever comes out of it, I love it."
Five will get you 10 that we'd all be poorer if we lost the chance to experience that very moment.